Cracking The Tab On Summer: Northwest Wine Brands Increasingly Pour Into Cans

Ste. Michelle Wine Estates’ has canned up its 14 Hands brand to roll out across the United States this summer. Courtesy of Ste. Michelle Wine Estates
Ste. Michelle Wine Estates’ has canned up its 14 Hands brand to roll out across the United States this summer. Courtesy of Ste. Michelle Wine Estates

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Several years ago, Union Wine Company of Tualatin, Oregon, put some wine in cans for a food festival. It was such a hit, says owner Ryan Harms, he decided to do it as his main business.

“I think there are a lot of indicators that are helping us feel confident about our continued investment and what we’re doing,” Harms says.

Now, Union ships its Underwood-branded cans to 49 states and 11 countries. Other big wineries have noticed.

Just in the last year, the wine-in-can category has grown by more than 100 percent across the nation, measured by volume of units sold.

Pallets of 14 Hands canned wines are ready to ship at Columbia Crest winery near Paterson, Wash.

Pallets of 14 Hands canned wines are ready to ship at Columbia Crest winery near Paterson, Wash.

The third largest winery in the nation is Ste. Michelle Wine Estates, based in Woodinville, Wash. Now, it’s pouring huge amounts of juice into aluminum cans under its 14 Hands brand.

At Ste. Michelle’s Columbia Crest winery, cans rattle through a mechanized line with several attendants and several more people scrambling to box the cans as they shuck off the machine.

Ste. Michelle’s cans are rolling out across the country to: Safeway, Albertsons, Kroger (which owns Northwest store brands QFC and Fred Meyer), 7-11 and Rite Aid.

“Our only concern at this point is keeping up,” says Patrick Kozel, director of innovation for Ste. Michelle. “We’ve shipped everything we’ve made thus far.”

According to Kozel, Ste. Michelle studied the market, focus-grouped what consumers want and tried out cans at CenturyLink Field last year — bringing canned wine to Seattle Seahawks and Sounders fans.

The company says the market share for canned wines has steadily increased and is now one of the fastest-growing segments of the total beverage market.

With more than a million cans produced just this spring under the 14 Hands brand, Ste. Michelle has barely cracked the tab on summer.

“We’ve done another round of canning if you would, rather than bottling,” Kozel says. “That’s our only challenge thus far (keeping up with demand). But it’s a good problem to have.”

Largest Player

In Seattle, Sean Sullivan is a contributing editor at Wine Enthusiast magazine and runs the popular Washington Wine Report.

“Obviously  Ste. Michelle is the largest player in Washington,” he says.

And just like the recent popularity of rosé, cans are a wine trend.

Sean Sullivan is a contributing editor at Wine Enthusiast magazine. He tastes hundreds of bottles each week, but he says cans are becoming big business across the U.S. CREDIT: ANNA KING/N3

Sean Sullivan is a contributing editor at Wine Enthusiast magazine. He tastes hundreds of bottles each week, but he says cans are becoming big business across the U.S. CREDIT: ANNA KING/N3

“Seeing them go into the market in such a large way tells you how strong of a trend canned wines are right now,” Sullivan says.

Ste. Michelle’s Kozel says this trend is reaching younger wine drinkers who are taking cans on hikes, boats, to concerts and golf courses.

“So they are just able to grab it and throw it in a cooler and not have to worry about having a corkscrew or wine glasses or anything of that nature,” Kozel says.

“I Think It’s Fantastic”

John Bookwalter is the owner of Bookwalter winery in Richland, Wash.

“I think it’s fantastic,” he says enthusiastically about the canning trend in the industry.

On a recent spring day, musicians croon to a crowded afternoon patio at his winery, as patrons sip and eat dinner. Bookwalter says even though he sells higher-priced wines and serves it in sparkling glasses, he’s excited that cans are joining the market.

“First of all it’s a great way to introduce people to Washington wines,” Bookwalter says. “Which we still need to do.”

Gilles Nicault, head winemaker at Long Shadows winery in Walla Walla, says quality wine in the can could surprise consumers and make new Northwest wine fans. CREDIT: ANNA KING/N3

Gilles Nicault, head winemaker at Long Shadows winery in Walla Walla, says quality wine in the can could surprise consumers and make new Northwest wine fans. CREDIT: ANNA KING/N3

But he also says canned wine is it’s own thing, and it doesn’t have to compare to a bottle of fine wine you’d eat at a linen-clad table: “Let’s not overthink this. This is a $5 can of wine and I think you need to set the bar for that.”

And even in the cool barrel room of one of the state’s highest-end wineries — Long Shadows in Walla Walla — head winemaker Gilles Nicault says cans have their place.

“There is also the tradition side to it, where a bottle of wine needs to be enjoyed. I’m not going to put some $75 wine into a can,” Nicault says. But, he adds, he’s still in favor of quality wine going into cans, not just bad wine because it’s a can.

“If they put the quality into it, I am all for it,” he says.

Nicault says good wine in a can would actually surprise consumers, especially if it’s approachable, bright with acidity and fruit and lovely for a summer event.

Still, has he tried a can of any wine?

“Not yet,” he says laughing. “But, I will, I will.”

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