Last month I was pondering why we don’t drink more half bottles. If you need an answer about what might be next for wine packaging (that’s not half bottles), then look no further than the humble tinny.
A version of this article appeared in National Liquor News a few months back. The usual caveat – it’s a different tone – but hopefully of interest.
Australia invented the Hills Hoist, created the wine cask and championed screwcaps – is canned wine next?
It’s easy to put wine in a can down as just a passing fad. A phase. But canned wine is is now the fastest growing segment in the US wine industry, up 43% in the year to June 2018 (BWW 166). Ditto in the UK, where canned wine is up by over 30%.
Importantly, while said segment is still tiny – just 0.2% of total wine sales in the US (Nielsen data) – the key demographic embracing this packaging choice is millennial drinkers, a part of the market often ignored or more actively targeted with RTDs and cider.
Locally, however, canned wine is still seen as a novelty – a product that is yet to have an audience.
But mark my words, there are producers both big and smell investing in the format, and with can technology expanding rapidly, the question is not whether cans will be ‘a thing’ but who will be first to capitalise on their success.
Treasury’s turn to tins
Of the larger winemakers dabbling in the segment/category/whatever you want to call it, Treasury Wine Estates (TWE) has arguably gone the hardest.
In September, TWE released six different wines in cans, across the A’tivo, Squealing Pig and T’Gallant brands. Notably, all of them are either sparkling or spritzed, which is a very deliberate move.
Kylie Farquhar explained the context at the recent ILG Conference in Bangkok:
‘All of the cans that we’re launching into the market right now are spritzed’ she said
‘They’re all 250ml serves, they’re all eight per cent alcohol and they’re all wine, so they’re not an RTD. They are 100 per cent wine based and something very new to the market’.
Beyond the convenience, the appeal of cans is that consumers apparently associate cans with outdoor dining and, most importantly, refreshment.
TWE undertook a massive survey a few years back called the Usage and Attitudes Study, and it very much informs the thinking here.
From the research, TWE deduced that while ‘refreshment’ drives 30% of drink choices, wine only makes up 1 in 10 of those decisions.
In other words, even a small move towards wine as a ‘refreshment choice’ can increase sales, particularly in the millenials age group.
Farquhar also set out how TWE will be backing the push to make wine in a can the alternative thirst quencher.
‘We are going to put a campaign together over summer which is all about opening up that afternoon refreshment session and giving people an opportunity to potentially move away from the dominance of beer and into canned wine as an alternative’.
The battle of cans
While TWE envisage considerable growth for canned wine, they face one challenge that might stymie growth – the can technology itself.
Canned wine is not a new idea, with the concept seen way back in the 60s. Back then Sydney wine merchant Doug Lamb imported cans of Beaujolais (and the 30s before that). The chemical nature of wine (ie high acidity, low pH), meant that the early cans also had a short shelf life, and were plagued by instability and corrosion.
In 2001, Australian inventors Greg Stokes and Steve Baris instead patented a canned wine solution known as Vinsafe. This technology allowed for wine to be stored safely for longer periods in aluminium can solving the problem. Rightfully, their company, Barokes, is considered to be the pioneers – but the business is also famous for protecting their patents. It’s too the point where they have pursued many makers who has produced wine in cans regardless of whether it uses the Vinsafe parameters (and alienated many).
TWE are amongst those who’re unhappy about the broadness of the Barokes patents and have taken it to the federal court to have the patents put aside (the case remains ongoing).
Conversely, Barokes claim that TWE simply ‘don’t want to pay the royalty fee’, noting that negotiations went on for five years until Treasury launched the a’Tivo brand without an agreement in place.
You can chose your sides here, and there are arguments for both sides. Barokes are on a less-than-stable footing too, with the Japanese partners in the business Daiwa ordering it to be wound up in Supreme Court proceedings. It’s lawyers all round.
Making canned wine cool
While Barokes and TWE battle it out in court over canned wine IP, there are a squad of producers who are using the Vinsafe technology and winning over drinkers.
Riot Wine Co. is one business that is no stranger to alternative methods of wine packaging. First launching as a wine in a keg business (with rosé on tap) in 2017, they’ve now successfully branched out into cans.
What the team at Riot has found is that cans are really just an alternative method of packaging that’s not glass. A packaging that, thanks to Barokes Vinsafe technology, now has a shelf life of 18 months.
As co-founder Tom O’Donnell explains, the battle to make canned wines mainstream has similarities to other Australian wine challenges:
‘Remember screwcaps? When first introduced they were the anti-establishment of a traditional industry that’s never really changed. Fast forward a decade and the majority of wine consumed in Australia is under screwcap!’ he said.
‘Wine in can is awesome, when there is awesome wine in can. No light, no oxygen, no reason to add masses of preservatives. It’s fast, fresh accessible wine’.
The perfect seal of cans – and lack of light – makes them a surprisingly good option for ensuring that freshness. It’s a key reason why the beer industry has fallen back in love with cans for the most aromatic, hop-driven styles.
Indeed for Riot, it was the fragrant and crisp rosé that first showed the potential of canned wine. A sparkling Chardonnay and a Sauvignon Blanc followed, and they’re about to release a premium McLaren Vale Grenache, just to prove that the concept can support true premium wine styles.
The next step for O’Donnell and business partner Joe Cook is to take Riot global, all while ‘enjoying a few cans along the way’.
Fine wine, canned
Another producer exploring the canned wine segment with gusto is Fourth Wave Wine. Now sporting seven different wines in a can, this is a range that spans from convenience to more premium wine.
As co-founder Nicholas Crampton explains, this was a deliberate move:
‘People are trying to do two things with wine in a can: Either creating a new beverage for casual drinking that is likely easy, sweet, bubbly and basically a wine cooler, or providing dry table wine in a more convenient format for certain occasions – that is, the same wine but more convenient’.
‘I am not sure where the first option goes but on option 2 which is what we are doing’ he said.
‘Looking at other categories I think the future of wine packaging is a greater diversity of options. Wine will still be anchored and dominated by 750ml glass but with 250 and 375ml cans having a solid role along with keg, half bottles or even Tetrapak’.
‘(Still) cans should certainly play a clear role, give convenience and can be a third of a bottle for a third of the price which other small formats can’t’.
While Crampton has seen early success with sparkling wine (just like TWE noted), he sees the growth in pure table wines:
‘So our Mascareri Prosecco sells well as people get it, there is less stigma and it suits parties and picnics. But the big surprise is our Take it to the Grave Shiraz sells almost as well!’
There is just one intriguing problem that Crampton has seen with cans so far – and it lies with retailers:
‘Overall the cans are performing solidly – a useful addition to the category… hampered a bit as no one knows where to put it in store!’
Cans or bust
Still, while makers like Crampton have found early success there remains scant evidence that cans will make a difference for premium wine.
Will Figueira of Wine Selectors isn’t sure:
‘I think it will be very hard to manage and strategise how (canned wine) is sold to premium wine drinkers. Do these buyers even want wine in a can?’ he said.
‘Cracking a can open to pour out a premium glass of wine loses a lot of the romanticism and ‘moment’ you get in pouring a wine out of a bottle’.
‘I don’t see a situation right now where people will be picking up a can of Penfolds Bin 389 on the way home to have with their dinner’.
No can bystander
Despite the challenges, there’s no denying the success of the right wine in cans. Especially for makers with proven success in non-glass packaging options – like Innocent Bystander.
Renowned for their market-leading moscato, Innocent Bystander have been experimenting with different formats for their moscato in some time, with now six years of wine in kegs and a brief dabble in cans over five years ago.
As Mat Janes explains, the biggest challenge is local perceptions:
‘The main issue, similarly to screwcaps, is established views around wine packaging’ he said.
‘In Australia, we love our 750ml bottles and wine drinkers, retailers and on-premise outlets have struggled to adopt new formats for selling wine’.
But things have changed more recently, and the relaunched Innocent Bystander moscato cans are already proving popular:
‘(With) markets like the USA, wine in cans has seen significant adoption over the last couple of years and I think Australian wine lovers are ready to get on board’.
Janes believes that cans offer for drinkers more than just a good drink, but a fresh one:
‘Wine in cans is about convenience and portion control’ he said.
‘We’ve all endured a stale glass of wine from a bottle that’s been open too long, or ‘polished off the bottle’, rather than letting it go to waste, especially with sparkling wine’.
‘(With cans) there’s the convenience of not having to drag glass bottles around to picnics and parties etc and there’s the ability to just have a glass without opening a whole bottle and feeling the need to finish it rather than wasting it’.
Despite the can appeal, Janes still believes glass is king:
‘However, when it comes to the joy of a shared wine occasion, enjoying a bottle over a meal with friends and family, bottled wine will still come up trumps’.
Cans from the Creek
It’s not just Innocent Bystander who are enjoying success with canned moscato, with the Jacobs Creek naturally also on board, as Pernod Ricard’s Eric Thomson notes:
‘The slight spritz of Jacob’s Creek Moscato works perfectly when served in a can or poured into a glass’ he said.
‘We launched them in Australia in June this year however we have been selling them since 2017 in Canada where they have been enormously successful’.
‘We are currently investigating what other wines would be suitable for cans, with a focus on light and fresh styles across Pernod Ricard Winemakers’ portfolio’.
Canned wine is in flux. The industry expectations are that the phenomenal growth will level out within the next 5-10 years, not unlike how long it took for screwcaps to achieve serious significance.
Still, this is one format that retailers can’t miss. The potential to convert more drinkers into lovers of premium wine remains alluring for producers and retailers too. Even if means reconfiguring the wine fridge.
For final advice, let’s cross to O’Donnell:
‘Simply rip the lid and enjoy’.