The Tiamo Grillo, a Sicilian white, is the first canned wine worth drinking
The Wine Curmudgeon has long railed against canned wine – not because I’m a Luddite who doesn’t think wine should come in cans, but because too much canned wine tastes like Kool-Aid spiked with watered down grain alcohol.
So I’m excited to report that the Tiamo Grillo ($5/375 ml can, sample, 12%), a Sicilian white wine, does for canned wine what almost no one else has done. Most canned wine seems to be made to appeal to someone who would drink wine from a can, instead of making wine that comes in a can. The difference is a funny, faux-rich and sweet mouth feel, which the Tiamo doesn’t have. It tastes like wine. Plus, it’s quality cheap wine that’s priced appropriately, the equivalent of $10 a bottle instead of $15 a bottle because you’re paying for the can. In all, it’s a surprising candidate for the 2018 $10 Hall of Fame.
Grillo produces is a crisp, lemony wine, and the Tiamo could have been a little bit more lemony. In this case, it was more soft lemon with maybe some apricots, and I would have liked a little more crispness on the finish. But it was fresh and enjoyable and delivered value, and how often have I been able to say that about canned wine?
One word of advice: The Tiamo loses something in drinking it from the can, which I tried and found lacking. Maybe it’s the taste of the can that gets in the way. But when I used a glass, it was all I had hoped it would be.
Can the idea that canned wine is the next big thing in wine packaging
People who are supposed to know these things insist that wine packaging is about to undergo a revolution – specifically, that canned wine is the next big thing and will sooner rather than later compete with bottles as the package of choice.
In this, they are wrong. Wine packaging has remained the same for centuries – a bottle with a cork – and there is absolutely no reason to believe that canned wine’s future is any different than screwcaps or boxes. It will occupy a niche, and lots of people will like it. But most of us won’t even notice it. The wine business in the U.S. has spent almost 100 years teaching us that we have to buy wine in a 750 ml bottle with a cork, and you don’t undo that overnight.
So why the enthusiasm for canned wine? First, because it has grown exponentially over the past couple of years, up 125 percent in the year through the middle of 2016. Second, it’s something that should appeal to the two generations of wine drinkers younger than the Baby Boomers, who grew up on canned soft drinks and juice boxes and who aren’t supposed to be as fussy about bottles as the rest of us. Third, because the people who do trend analysis wouldn’t have anything to write about if they didn’t find a trend, and it isn’t easy to find trends in an industry as old-fashioned as wine.
In fact, here’s what the prognosticators don’t tell you about canned wine:
• “After years of packaging innovations, the traditional 750 ml wine bottle is more important to the domestic wine industry than ever.” The number of 750ml bottles sold increased 41 percent from 2010 to 2014, which is the same period that overall wine sales in the U.S., as measured by bottles sold, was up just 11 percent. This is premiumization’s work; who is going to pay $25 for a bottle of wine in can or box? Meanwhile, sales have fallen dramatically for the very cheapest wines, which lend themselves best to cans.
• That 125 percent growth was from a very tiny base. All told, canned wine accounted for $6.4 million in a $55 billion business, or about one-tenth of one percent.
• Retailers don’t like canned wine. Store shelves are designed to sell 750 ml bottles, and canned wine doesn’t fit on the shelves. That’s what happened to boxed wine, which was supposed to be the next big thing a decade ago. Retailers could never figure out how to display it, and so they shoved it to the back of the store.
• Canned wine hasn’t solved the value/price problem. Much of it is more expensive than bottled wine, since we’re paying for convenience. But the quality of the wine usually isn’t worth the added cost. Much of the canned wine I’ve tasted was junk that would cost $4 or $5 for a 25-ounce bottle, not $5 for a 12-ounce can. Compare this to boxed wine, which has improved in quality and does offer value – and still remains a small part of the market, about three percent.
In the end, know that screw caps, which offer as much convenience as a can without any added cost to the consumer, have been around for decades. And they still account for just 20 percent of the market. How are cans going to do better than that?
Trying to break us from the 750-ml bottle has been all but impossible, and even the wise guys on Shark Tank underestimated the challenge. Which means that wine in a can will have to offer something that we can’t get from wine in a bottle, and that isn’t novelty. The Wine Curmudgeon, who goes where no other wine writer dares, recently put wine in a can – the Underwood rose ($7/375-ml, sample, 12%) – through its paces, and I’m not optimistic about its future. And not because it’s almost impossible to swirl wine in a can:
• Price/value: Not pretty. The can is half the size of a bottle, and it’s sold in a four-pack, so you’re spending $28 for two bottles, 8 to 10 glasses of wine. In other words, you could buy two bottles of $10 Hall of Fame wine, spend almost one-third less, and get better wine. Or you could buy a three-liter box of Black Box for about $24, and get four bottles – eight times as much wine – and about the same quality.
• Quality: Meh. It’s Big Wine wine in a can and tastes remarkably like E&J Gallo’s Dark Horse rose. This is a neat trick since the Underwood has an Oregon appellation, and the Dark Horse is from California. The wine is drinkable, but lacks the crisp and fresh qualities I want in rose; almost any $10 rose in a bottle will be more enjoyable.
• Ease of use/convenience: Very easy – just pull back the tab and drink. Plus, it’s easier to keep cold, and especially in an ice chest. These are wine in a can’s selling points, but even they probably won’t be enough. If I can buy quality craft beer for $12 a six-pack and get the same convenience, why would I pay twice as much for less wine of lesser quality? Or not bring boxed wine, which also works in a cooler, to the beach?
The biggest disappointment with wine in a can? I wanted to like it, if only because it’s such a poke in the eye for the wine business. Perhaps someone else can solve the pricing problem. Until then, though, wine in a can doesn’t offer enough value. So why bother?
? So long to syrah? Talk to retailers, and they’ll tell you they can’t give away syrah. Now there are Nielsen figures to back that up. Syrah’s sales in grocery stores are down 16 percent over the past year, the worst performance of the nine wines surveyed and three times as bad as the second worst, merlot (also interesting, and probably worth a post on its own). How did this happen? Chalk it up to the usual short-sightedness from the wine business and its allies in the Winestream Media, which kept telling consumers they should drink wine that was undrinkable. And when consumers said they’d had enough, which they’ve done, there was no Plan B.
? Can I have that in a can? What do you do if you’re a Big Wine company and sales tank? Put your wine in a can. That’s what FlipFlop, the Barefoot knockoff from The Wine Group, is doing. The producer will do a four-pack of 250-milliliter cans (about 1 1/3 bottles) for $12. Canned wine, other than as a novelty, has never been popular in the U.S., and this may be an attempt to breathe life in a brand that hasn’t done as well as The Wine Group hoped.
? Fake Chablis: A French wine producer has been accused of using grapes from other parts of the country to make Chablis, chardonnay from the Burgundy region of France. All of which is bad enough, but he has apparently been doing it for a decade without anyone noticing. Wine-Searcher.com reports that the Maison Fromont winery put grapes from Provence and the Rh ne Valley, where there is very little chardonnay, in the company’s Chablis. How they got away with this for 10 years, until tax records tripped them up, is stunning. Did no one taste the wine? Chablis’ taste is unique, even for white Burgundy. One clue: The company exports 95 percent of its wine.