By Joel Stein, Bloomberg
THE wine-in-a-can revolution began its ascent in 2004 when film director, hotelier, and wine maker Francis Ford Coppola introduced Sofia Blanc de Blanc, a gift to his daughter, which also came with an attached straw. Over the years, the Sofia collection has mimicked the overall growth of canned wine, expanding to include canned takes on Riesling, still rosé, Chardonnay, and, this year, the Sofia Brut Rosé.
As of last summer, sales of canned wine were as much as $14.5 million, more than doubling the sales from the previous year. A study of millennials indicates that while they consider boxed wine déclassé, they are down with cans that have large, bright graphics. This summer there are more nonsparkling options than ever, including Trader Joe’s in-house line of sparkling white and rosé, called Simpler Wines, which sells for $1 a can.
Although I’m a horrifying wine snob, I like to think of myself as container-agnostic, one who accepts screw-tops, plastic corks, boxed wine, even the growler I once had in the Finger Lakes district of New York. If I had to, I’d have no problem drinking Château Latour out of my hands.
So I set out to try a few with two of the owners of Augustine, the best wine bar in Los Angeles.
One of them is Matthew Kaner, a canned-wine true believer. He argues that bubblies, whites, and rosés are convenient when tubing down a river, drinking at a sporting event where glass isn’t permitted, or just shoving into a backpack when there’s no room for nice glassware. He’s also begun working with Emma Toshack, a Harvard Business School graduate and former Snapchat growth programs manager, to help her start Nomadica, a canned-wine company that puts artists’ work on its labels.
The other person at the tasting is his business partner, David Gibbs, who had a former life as the lead singer of the band Gigolo Aunts. He was immediately skeptical. “It’s a dumb delivery vehicle,” he says, noting that, unlike a Bordeaux glass, you can’t bury your nose into that little sharp hole in a can. “You’re smelling whatever soap you have on your hands.”
But as we sip from cans and spit in a bucket, Gibbs is at least impressed that he can’t discern a metallic taste in any of the 20 cans we try. And both men bring up a salient point: Some wines are better in a can than others. A canned beer straight from the fridge can handle the temperature of your hands, but a red starting at room temperature cannot.
“They would be a syrupy, cloying mess within four minutes in your hands,” Gibbs says. Plus, Kaner, argues, while you might want a can of sparkling, white, or rosé at the beach, pool, picnic or hike – when do you really need a red on the go?
“What’s the likelihood that you’re going to be in the middle of winter with a Paso Robles red with 14% alcohol and need it in a can?”
With that in mind here, then, are the ones we all like best.
• Underwood – The Bubbles. In 2013, under the motto “Pinkies down,” this Oregon winery started putting some of its wine in simple, shiny cans. And we all think it’s pleasant enough. “It’s like if you put a bottle of chardonnay in a Sodastream,” Gibbs says. “Pretty tasty, actually.” Kaner agrees. “It has acid,” he says, noting that the sweetness is well-balanced. “It’s a real wine. That’s a legitimate wine that has bubbles pumped in, like they do with beer.” $28 per four-pack
• Sofia Blanc de Blancs Mini. Gibbs immediately yanks the tiny straw attached to the can and throws it away. “I’m a grown-ass adult. There are not a lot of straws in my life,” he says. In the glass it was really foamy and more than a little sweet. “Its mousse is really big. It’s not elegant. It seems bizarrely pink-fruited.” But none of us dislike it. “This is totally fine. You’re not going to remember it, which is OK. I’m not going to remember every In-N-Out burger I’ve ever had.” He suggests you keep the can very cold, like a beer. $20 per four-pack
• Presto Sparkling Cuvée. The duo was less impressed with this sparkling wine from Italy, which – again – is sweet and thick. “It’s not bad,” Gibbs says. “Either the fruit was super-ripe, or it’s got a little residual sugar.” Adds Kaner, noting the buttery heaviness: “There’s unnecessary oak on that.” $12.99 per four-pack
• Porch Pounder Chardonnay. “That is not unenjoyable,” Gibbs hedges. “But I can’t stand that name. If I were going to pound a wine, it would be a light-bodied riesling.” The heavy chardonnay from California’s Central Coast comes in regular cans and tall boys. Gibbs continues, “This is very full-throttled with a syrupy canned-fruit smell. But I occasionally eat canned fruit.” Still, pounding is not going to happen. “I don’t know if I could get through a glass of this. It tastes good but cloying, like a good-looking girl with too much makeup.” $24 or $30 per four-pack
• Jackhammer Chardonnay. Another chardonnay, this one a tall boy from a Monterey County wine maker known for its bottles of cheap pinot noir and unoaked chardonnay. It’s one of the few wines that isn’t trying too hard to please. “Of the chardonnays, I like this by far the best,” Gibbs says. “I’m getting green apple and honeydew, for sure.” $8.99 per 500-ml can
• West Side. Saying only that it’s from California, West Side offers cute cans with a tiny bit of very surprising effervescence. “It’s got that unnatural crème brûlée flavor,” Gibbs says. “It smells like a Chateau St. Jean 1986. But it tastes like a chemistry experiment. It has a weird spritz. Kaner agrees, especially after tasting the finish. “That’s oak chips. Ugh.” $15.99 per four-pack
• Underwood Rosé. Just as simple and straightforward as its sparkling but slightly better – bright, happy, rosé-y. “It tastes like those Trader Joe’s dehydrated strawberry snacks,” Gibbs says. “It’s got some salinity to it. I would have no problem drinking that.” $28 per four-pack
• Porch Pounder. This big-ass rosé is from Paso Robles, where the sun is hot, the grapes are sweet, and the wine is big – which is tough in a rosé, though kind of fun in its own non-Provence way. “It smells like crushed-up children’s vitamins,” Gibbs says. “It’s fruit punch.” $24 per four-pack
• Underwood Pinot Noir. This, a pinot noir from Oregon’s Underwood, was the best red wine in a can we tasted. “If I were at a concert at the Greek Theater, I would buy a can of this and be very happy,” Gibbs says. “It’s almost Twizzler-esque. More California than Oregon – that brighter strawberry-and-cherry mix. That’s very easy to sell. That mouthfeel, a medium-minus body.” $28 per four-pack
• Fiction by Field Recordings. Both Kaner and Gibbs say they could easily sell this wine to their customers – or any American drinker. It’s 36% zinfandel, with the remainder mostly Rhône grapes, with some cabernet sauvignon. “That’s a big Paso teeth-stainer,” Gibbs says, marveling at its heaviness. “If you want a wine that tastes like a cocktail, this is it. It smells really nice – blackberry, black cherry, Hostess blueberry pie with a sugar glaze.” $40 per four-pack