Is Vin in a Can the New Secret Weapon of New York Wine?
Written by Amy Zavatto, photos by Chelsea Fausel
Chris Stamp has Phish to thank for discovering an untapped wine market the Empire State didn’t know it had. We’re not talking email data-stealing scams—not that phish. But the Burlington, Vermont, jam band that draws tens of thousands of devoted fans. Yeah, that Phish.
The Lakewood Vineyards owner had been approached by a venue where the band was to hold a summer concert: Would they ever consider making wine in a can? “They wanted significant quantity, but not glass all over the infield,” remembers Stamp. He got his son, Ben, involved, hired a mobile canning unit, and they were off, agreeing with the venue to produce significant quantities of their Bubbly Catawba. They even made extra, just in case.
Things didn’t exactly go as planned. “There was an enormous flood the week of the concert and they had to cancel it for health concerns. It was a gargantuan impact on the region,” says Stamp, who decided not to hold the venue’s feet to the fire and force them to honor the contract. “We kept [the wine] and started selling. We thought we were just testing the market, but we had to throw it all in!” The happy accident turned out to be such a hit, they released it again this year and added another product this past May: Bubbly Candeo.
Over the past two years, more than half a dozen New York wineries and counting have added the tsss-crunch-POP! of aluminum can packaging to their bevy of bottles. But wait: Didn’t we just get over corks and embrace screw tops, like, yesterday? Aren’t cans kind of a risky business for the small, some might say struggling, AVAs of New York to leap into? Are drinkers really and truly ready for local wine in a can? Fast as you can grab a four-pack, the speedy, sippy answer is yes.
“I had been doing my research of what other producers were doing, and thought, ‘We should do this!’” says Matthew Spacarelli, winemaker for Benmarl Winery in the Hudson Valley. Spacarelli had already had success transitioning from cork to screw cap for both his white and reds, and suspected that canning would have the same response. He launched the line in the summer of 2018 with their unoaked Chardonnay, a semi-dry Riesling and their popular Slate Hill red blend. This year, not only are they increasing production, but adding a dry rosé and considering a bubbly version of the Chard.
“It was actually a great talking point for our wines, whose style is fresh and aromatic,” he says. “They’re not meant to be put down for 20 years.”
Have Flip Top, Will Travel
The big thing that is making local wine in a can so attractive can be summed up in a word: portability. The immediate enthusiasm for light, unbreakable, compact, grab-and-go packaging means a favorite wine can now go where beer has easily gone before it: concerts, boats, beaches, golf courses, lakes, poolside, theaters, hikes, festivals—anywhere a wine key and a glass bottle might be tricky if impossible to tote.
“What was interesting—and is continually interesting to me—is that after being in business since 1980, there are still things left that surprise me about producing wine,” says Scott Osborn, who launched 125 cases each of three different wines in cans from his Fox Run Vineyards on Seneca Lake last September.
“Even though it was the supposed end of the season, we pretty much sold out. I’d been reading about the category for the last year or two, and realized that there are situations where people want to drink wine but they can’t because glass is not allowed, or convenient, or is too heavy,” he says.
“I also believe that people who like to drink good wine will still drink that wine if it’s presented to them in a package so they can do it anywhere.” Osborn and his winemaker, Peter Bell, ramped up production of their fresh, lively, unoaked Chardonnay, semi-dry Riesling and hybrid white blend, Arctic Fox, this past spring.
The concept of wine in cans, of course, is not exactly new; it’s been over 20 years since Australians Steve Barics and Greg Stokes of Barokes Wines began tinkering with selling antipodean juice in can, apparently after a broken glass in a spa inspired the idea. And in the early aughts, Francis Ford Coppola’s slim-and-straw-bound Sofia line launched in the U.S. with a bubbly blancs de blanc, and is still going strong.
It seems like an easy no-brainer for big, well-funded West Coast wineries like Coppola or Gallo to launch a can plan with their overabundance of bulk-wine vino, aiming more at quaffable convenience than a memorable oenophile experience. And on paper, perhaps, the notion of small producers in petite, little-known wine-producing places like Spacarelli in the Hudson Valley or Coyote Moon Vineyards way up in the Thousand Islands region (the first to try out wine in cans in New York in 2016) bellying up to this burgeoning part of the business might seem misdirected at best, risky at worst. But not only is wine in can one of the more interesting sectors of the wine world to watch (according to Nielsen, canned wine saw a hefty near-50% growth spurt last year), but New York producers who have given it a go had such a resoundingly positive reception, nearly all have at least doubled production in their second year.
Russell Hearn, of Long Island’s Bridge Lane and Lieb Cellars, has been the state’s best success story. He released his initial batch of all five wines under the Bridge Lane label—Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, White Merlot, rosé and a red blend—in 2017. They did so well and sold out so quickly, he produced 10 times the amount the following summer. Production for 2019 will ramp up that amount three times more, in part to sate new markets out of state who have caught to the boon of both high quality and high portability.
“We’ve done three rounds since our initial launch, and increased production each time,” says Kris Kane of 21 Brix, a winery in the Lake Erie region, whose dry rosé has been nearly impossible to keep on shelves. “It really snowballed. Also, I thought it would be just younger people who’d be accepting of new packaging, but it’s all over the place.”
Indeed, unlike the path of pet-nat nerds or Burgundy collectors, fans aren’t of any particular vintage themselves. It’s not millennial adventurers or silver-haired wine-savvy cellar hounds—it’s both and everyone in between, including a crossover into craft beer devotees finding a new interest in wine, simply because it’s being presented to them in places where they normally reach for an IPA. The excitement about can convenience—and, perhaps, sidestepping any fear of fumbling with a wine key—seems to overshadow prejudging what’s inside the package and from where it hails.
“They taste it, they like it and then ask more about it. We’ve gotten into a number of local farm breweries,” says Bellangelo Winery owner Christopher Missick in Dundee, NY, who released four of his wines in can under the name Can-Do. “It offers a natural alternative without them having to fuss over leftover bottles.”
And maybe the biggest surprise of all: Instead of going head to head with big brands, cans allow small producers to stand out from the competition: What’s inside isn’t a cheap afterthought (sorry, Barefoot), but an extension of wines that were more often than not offered only in bottle before.
“In 2017, you really started to see an uptick in quality wine producers putting wine in can. It was a gut-check moment for me. Wine in can is legit! VINNY is a proper table wine that’s sparkling; it’s not a spritzer or a malt beverage,” says Thomas Pastuszak, the super-star wine director of NoMad and a Finger Lakes native who has been making wine on the side with FLX grapes via his two labels, Terrassen and Empire Estate, since 2013. Last July, he launched VINNY (the vin is for wine; the ny for New York), a bubbly, cracker-dry blend of Riesling and Grüner Veltliner that comes in a slim, buttercup-yellow 250ml can. “It’s targeting certain people who want to drink wine where bottles can’t go.”
“For the casual wine drinker who wants a glass of bubbly while cooking on a Wednesday night, but doesn’t want to commit to an entire bottle, cans provide an opportunity there. It presents the product the way it’s meant to be every time, and there’s less waste,” says Ben Stamp of Lakewood. Lakewood’s off-dry Bubbly Catawba, with its cool, old-school tattoo-like illustration of a rose on the can, was in demand well into the celebratory holiday season, an admitted surprise to Stamp and his dad, Chris. Catawba and Candeo both sell for around an easy $16 a four-pack—a bottle of wine for under 20 bucks. “There’s a lot of competition in the canned wine market from huge producers,” says Chris Stamp, “but we have a neat little market here that’s thriving. It’s something different at an affordable price.”
And if you crack it open at a Phish concert (alternative packaging and an alternative substance to that more typically consumed by Phish Heads… ), all the better.
Amy Zavatto grew up on Shelter Island and is the daughter of an old school Italian butcher who used to sell bay scallops alongside steaks. She is the former deputy editor of Edible Brooklyn and Edible Manhattan and writes about all things drinkable.
Chelsea Fausel is a lifestyle and wedding photographer in the finger lakes with a studio in downtown Ithaca. She spends her spare time with her wife and 4 children hiking, traveling and drinking lots of coffee. Follow her work on Instagram: @fauselimagery
This article originally appeared in the July/August 2019 edition of the magazine.