The canned wine market is being pulled in different directions. One way is chock full of affordable, mass-produced, widely available products of middling quality, often sharing shelf space with ready-to-drink cocktails and hard seltzers. The other, and perhaps more intriguing, path is in the premium sector—higher-priced wines made from quality grapes by well-known winemakers, giving consumers confidence with every pop of the top.
Sales numbers continue to show that canned wines’ popularity is growing. Marketing firm Grand View Research reported the canned wine market in 2021 was at $235.7 million in sales and forecasted that the global canned wine market will continue expanding, surpassing $570 million by 2028. Market Watch sister publication Wine Spectator has blind tasted nearly 60 canned wines over the last year, with approximately half scoring between 85 and 89 points, or very good, on its 100-point scale. Those numbers are similar to those of previous years.
The top-scoring example came from Companion Wine Co., a partnership between designer Robert Van Horne and winemaker Ryan Stirm. Their 90-point Sunny B Oliver’s Vineyard Edna Valley ($11 a 375-ml. can) is made primarily from Sauvignon Blanc, with a splash of Chardonnay. The wine is barrel-fermented and aged for six months, resulting in a plump, fragrant, and juicy serve.
This is also the first year that red wine quality has matched that of whites and rosés in cans. Maker’s Anderson Valley Pinot Noir ($66 a 6-pack of 250-ml. cans) and its Paso Robles Zinfandel ($78) clocked in at 89 and 88 points, respectively. Groove notched 88 points with its Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir ($42), while a Merlot-based Napa Valley red blend from Larkin ($240 a 24-pack of 250-ml. cans) scored 87. Additionally, a category once dominated by domestic producers is looking more global, with canned imports arriving from Italy, France, Chile, Argentina, and South Africa. “Once people get it out of their head that there’s some issue with wine in cans, we’re going to see more wineries get into the game, and as more people get in, it buoys us all up,” says Van Horne.
A Mixed Market
Where does canned wine go from here? Do consumers prefer the easy and affordable quaff, or the sophisticated, premium wine in a can? The simple answer is both. But if you’re willing to spend a few extra dollars per can, the results won’t disappoint.
Comparing the results from Wine Spectator’s blind tastings, the higher-priced wines achieved scores that were, on average, two points higher than their lower-priced counterparts. Wines priced $10 or more per can averaged about 86 points, while those less than $10 averaged 84 points. In general, the $10-plus cans carried specific appellations, while the under-$10 cans had broader origins, like California.
Van Horne notes that he targets markets and wine shops where consumers can buy canned wine without feeling embarrassed. “When you see bottles for $10, $15, and then $40, your mind, in terms of quality, is already aligning,” he says. “We’re not trying to find the cheapest way to make wine in a can; we want to be the best wine in a can.” Companion has a placement in Los Angeles’ Erewhon Market, an upscale health-food store, where sales are booming, Van Horne adds.
Sean Larkin of Larkin Wines is also pursuing markets that can support the slightly higher cost. “I wasn’t going after Target,” he says, noting that in Napa Valley, Oakville Grocery and Kelly’s Filling Station both carry his products. “If you walk into Oakville Grocery to get a sandwich, you’re not going to grab a bottle, but you might grab a can, and that’s what I’m going after.”
Larkin has also found a niche with custom cans, partnering with chef Thomas Keller for a line of private-label cans sold in the chef’s restaurants Ad Hoc and Bouchon. Partnerships with a high-end hotel chain are also in the works. But, of course, the quality needs to be there to target these higher-end establishments. “I’m not going to put a bad wine in a can. I can’t sell Thomas Keller garbage,” he adds.
The Larkin wines have been among the highest-scoring every year Wine Spectator has reviewed canned wines. However, using Napa Valley grapes inherently demands a higher price, which Larkin admits is a challenge. “The market is price sensitive,” he explains. “You can’t just cut [the price] in half because it just doesn’t equate mentally that you’re getting a third or half of a bottle.” Van Horne notes that buying two 375-ml. cans of Companion is equivalent to buying a $20 bottle. “We want to be the most competitive we can be [in that price range] without compromising,” he says.
Kenneth Rochford and Matt Allan’s goal since founding West + Wilder in 2018 has been about making wine more fun and accessible while not sacrificing quality. Now they hope to deliver to a broader audience. Earlier this year, they partnered with C. Mondavi and Family to bring more visibility and distribution to the brand, making the premium canned wines available nationwide. “We were just hugely flattered and honored that a company like [C. Mondavi and Family] liked what we were doing,” says Rochford.
He adds that, early on, they conducted various studies and focus groups and learned that few consumers cared about vintage when it came to wine in a can. “They’re not interested in standard wine criteria; the main thing was, ‘How does this taste?’” he says, observing that the quickest way to convert people is to get them to try it. “When we started, we had to show people how versatile cans are. It’s nice to fast-forward now. There are still lots of challenges, but there’s momentum.”
A Future In Cans?
“It’s clear that cans are, by far, the best alternative package in terms of sales [for wine] right now,” says Companion Wine Co.’s Stirm. The wine industry has not been exempt from inflation and supply chain issues. Delays in procuring equipment, barrels, glass, and other supplies have stymied vintners, with many waiting months for product or looking for alternatives.
“This year, glass doubled in price,” he adds. Stirm also runs Stirm Wine Co., a Santa Cruz-based brand that puts all of its wine into glass bottles. Most glass for wine bottles is imported, whereas nearly 100% of aluminum used in canning in the U.S is domestic. “Aluminum is efficient and sustainable,” he notes.
Larkin agrees. “The way things are going right now with glass, you might have no choice,” he says, citing his attempts to order glass for a yet-to-be-made 2022 Sauvignon Blanc. “Three cans at $10 a piece versus a bottle at $40 … sure, I make more money putting it in a bottle. But there’s no glass to be had.”
But cans do require planning, as they’re different vessels than glass. The winemakers caution that putting wine into a can should be about more than chasing trends for a one-off opportunity. West + Wilder often plans 12-18 months ahead to ensure they’re supplied with aluminum. Part of that is forward thinking, but it also has to do with quality. Beyond logistics, serious canned wine brands like West + Wilder can their wines up to ten times a year to ensure consistent quality. “People are putting the wine into bottles and cans and expecting the same outcome, but freshness in the can is imperative,” says Allen, noting that they took a lot of inspiration from craft beer when it came to multiple canning runs.
Eco-consciousness continues to be part of the category’s spirit. Canned wines are an easy green win over bottles when it comes to production and shipping. Forty percent of the wine industry’s emissions come from the creation of the bottle—and that doesn’t include shipping emissions, which are also higher for bottles than for cans. And only about 30% of all bottles can be recycled in the U.S. On the other hand, up to 70% of aluminum is made of recycled materials, and aluminum’s lightweight nature means significantly fewer carbon emissions in transport. “If you’re looking for a way to get your carbon footprint down and make the world a less bad place, this is it,” says Rochford. “If you’re attracted to cans, they are the most sustainable format.”
Many canned producers, like West + Wilder, are embracing their lower carbon footprint and also contributing to environmental charities. The winery partners with One Percent for the Planet, and 1% of their sales goes to supporting the preservation of wild spaces. Companion’s Stirm and Van Horne, both avid fishermen, donate a portion of the yearly profits from their rosé to CalTrout, an agency working to ensure healthy waters for fish in California.
According to NielsenIQ research, 17% of American consumers are more likely to purchase sustainable or environmentally conscious products, and 16% are more likely to buy socially responsible products. “We wanted to be a platform to do good and give back,” Allan says. “I believe there’s a buyer out there who’s willing to spend a little bit more, knowing that’s the mission.”
While the market is hot, it’s still not clear if there is a significant profit to be made for smaller brands in the canned wine category. For Larkin, making wines exclusively from Napa Valley grapes comes with limitations. “I couldn’t afford to put Cabernet Sauvignon or Franc in cans. Merlot is on the border,” he says, noting that he has to watch fruit costs to make the program work. But ultimately, Larkin believes anything can happen, and references his first bottled Cabernet Franc in 1999 as a comparison to the canned wine market. “It was $60 and people looked at me like I was crazy. But you can demand the price if you have the quality,” he says.
Then again, some are already testing the viability of high-priced cans. Jean-Charles Boisset produces an Oakville Wine Merchant Cabernet Sauvignon, sold exclusively at Oakville Grocery, which retails for $65 a 250-ml. can.
The consensus is that consumers need to accept that there is quality wine in cans, and that buying a 3- or 4-pack from a good winery is going to cost the same as a bottle. “This is a slow-moving industry,” says Rochford, observing that it might take something radical, like putting aged wine in a can, to change perceptions. “But that’s how we can grow and make wine more approachable and fun, and that’s what wine is all about.”