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Canned Wine—A Blast from the Past

Columnist: Tim Carl
October, 2018 Issue
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Tim Carl
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Wine in glass bottles is so yesterday, it seems. Whereas wine sales in the United States have been flat in the last year, sales of canned wines have jumped an impressive 43 percent, with younger drinkers driving the trend, Forbes reports. Many of these wines have additions to them, such as lemonade or other fruit juices, making them more like alcoholic sodas than expressions of terroir. And although the category remains small, I expect the selection of wines coming in tinned six-packs and the range of flavorings to increase in the coming decade.

Canned wine is nothing new. The first such wines were produced by the Acampa Winery of Lodi around the mid-1930s. Other canned wines followed and made a brief but limited resurgence in the 1950s and then again when Coca-Cola released their own attempt in the 1980s.

Adding flavorings to wine is also nothing new. Sangria or spritzer anyone? I remember the “wine cooler” trend of the 1970s and ’80s. My mother and her friends would buy four-packs of cheap wine infused with what was ostensibly 7Up, called California Cooler. By the late 1980s, infused wine had become an accepted addition to the alcohol-beverage lineup for many consumers.

The wine-cooler trend, though short lived, resulted in the fortune of a few, including two young men from Lodi. Michael Crete and Stuart Bewley, who had gone to high school together, noticed a growing desire for flavored wines. After testing some prototypes they raised an initial round of funding from friends and family and began commercial production. To project a certain level of California sophistication, the two chose a 12.7-ounce emerald-green bottle, wrapped the necks with foil and labeled them in a gold, green and white logo that always looked to me as if it were designed by the child of a cowboy who had fallen in love with a 1960s flower child.

Design conundrum aside, the beverage took off, and by the mid ’80s sales had risen to more than $100 million. Wisely, in 1985, Bewley and Crete sold the company to liquor powerhouse Brown-Forman Inc. in a deal said to be worth nearly $150 million.

By then the competition had jumped into the market with Seagram and others coming up with their own brands of wine coolers, including the popular E&J Gallo’s Bartles & Jaymes coolers. The TV ad featured two old codgers playing the fictitious namesakes and ending their pitch with a heartfelt, “Thank you for trying our product.”

However, even with the kitschy ads and funky packaging, sales had already started to decline. By the late 1980s, wine consumers had lost their interest in flavored wines and had turned their attention back to beer and wine in traditional 750-milliliter bottles.

According to Wine Folly, another reason for the rapid decline in the blended-wine category was that in January 1991 Congress quintupled the excise tax on wine from $.17/gallon to $1.07/gallon, causing many businesses to shift from wine-based concoctions to malted beverages and infused spirits.

Yet as J.K. Rowling reminds us, “Time is making fools of us again.”

Now it seems that wine drinkers are interested in what is a blend of two past trends: canned wine with flavorings. These portable canned beverages remain rare in the market—only a couple dozen options at present—but the rush is on, with nearly every large producer ramping up production. Those companies with the history and institutional knowledge from past experience will move into this space quickly, whereas the smaller followers not already in the market will need to find a niche. Chili-pepper infused Pinot Gris anyone? All of them will find competition growing and likely that consumers’ attention is both fickle and fleeting.

Am I a fan of this trend? Well, as someone interested in the business of wine, I find it fascinating to watch how things repeat themselves and how early adopters of past trends can either get the timing perfectly right—or tragically wrong. However, as someone interested in the quality and complexity of wine, I imagine you won’t find too many six-packs of the stuff in my refrigerator. Although now that I think about it, maybe the next time I join my Millennial friends, I’ll bring along a few cans to the beach, or on a hike. Once we’re at our destination, we could pop open a few while we take a few selfies by a waterfall. Delicious.



 

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