Can Do: Wineries tap into canning for consumer convenience

Just in time for summer, Leelanau Cellars and Chateau Chantal are tapping in to a new market: wines in a can.

Leelanau’s three canned varieties – sparkling red, white and rosé – and Chateau Chantal’s bubbly cherry and bubbly white canned wines step into a trend that has spread nationally, as seen with major brands like Barefoot, Cupcake Vineyards and Dark Horse Wine.

“We jumped into this because we saw this wave coming,” said Gabe Marzonie, Leelanau Cellars’ marketing director.

Leelanau and Chateau Chantal aren’t alone in their interest. Other local wineries, including bigLITTLE Wines, Soul Squeeze Cellars and Baia Estate Wines, are dipping into canned wines as they assess a small-but-growing market segment.

“It’s an alternative package that people seem to like; different things for different folks,” said Jon Moramarco, managing partner of alcohol market research and advisory services firm BW 166 LLC, in Santa Rosa, Calif. “The wine market is a bunch of little niches. I think there’s a place for canned wines and people who do it right.”

Leelanau Cellars is banking on canned wines’ appeal. The Omena winery has invested some $200,000 toward the move – purchasing machinery and making in-house renovations to pave the way for a launch run of about 3,000 cases of each variety. Leelanau’s Great Lakes Red Bubbly and Winter White Bubbly are canned versions of bottled wines while the Summer Sunset Rosé Bubbly is debuting only in a can. All will be poured in Leelanau’s tasting room as well as distributed elsewhere.

Besides canning its own wine, the winery – which already provides custom bottling services to others – is exploring adding custom canning service to its lines of business, said Leelanau General Manager Darrell Shibley. He said Leelanau Cellars’ canned wine sales in the first year could reach five percent of its total wine sales and grow beyond that.

“There’s always a little bit of looking into the crystal ball here,” Shibley said. “We believe this is not going to be a flash in the pan.”

Old Mission Peninsula’s Chateau Chantal has put its bottled sparkling cherry and sweet sparkling white wine Beguile into cans, along with a white canned variety named Sweet TC. These will be available in the winery’s tasting room and retail store shelves. A sparkling canned cran-apple is also in the works, a version of a still cran-apple wine sold primarily in Meijer stores and other retailers, said Marie-Chantal Dalese, president and CEO of Chateau Chantal.

“We wanted to pick wines that were fun” and present them in an easily portable form that can go where glass can’t, Dalese said. “In general, I like the concept of demystifying wine,” she said. “And I think this helps to do that.”

Chateau Chantal produces the wine and currently ships it for canning to Fenn Valley Vineyards in southwest Michigan’s Fennville.

Also using Fenn Valley’s canning services is bigLITTLE Wines, where co-owner and vintner Mike Laing plans this year to double canned production of bigLITTLE Mixtape, a blended white wine that has been one of the winery’s best-selling bottled products.

Laing said last year’s initial canned run is nearly sold out and in bigLITTLE’s tasting room, where the canned Mixtape is one of the offerings poured, the reception has been one of positive surprise.

“People are open to it, they think it’s pretty cool,” he said. “We wanted a format for ease of having our wines out and about, for people on the go. So boating, beach … that attracted us to the cans and the fact that we were seeing a lot more in the marketplace and just trying to respond to that and offer folks a choice.”

He said the winery plans to can about 170 cases this year, producing the wine in Suttons Bay and then shipping it to Fenn Valley. Fenn Valley last year began canning wines for itself and others, launching its dry, slightly effervescent white called Vino Blanco, a rosé, and most recently, a canned pinot grigio.

For clients, Fenn Valley offers production services that include providing cans and labor and running the wine through the canning line.

“At the high level, they make the wine, and we get it safely in the can,” said Fenn Valley Vice President Brian Lesperance.

Lesperance, who is also secretary and board member of the Michigan Wine Collaborative, an organization supporting wineries, growers and other businesses and individuals connected to the industry, said Fenn Valley’s client wine canning has taken off since launch.

“It’s been phenomenal, better than I expected, actually,” he said. “We’ve done more work for clients, probably, than we have for ourselves.”

Local wineries are also clients of Leelanau County’s Harbor Hill Fruit Farms, which in addition to producing its own bottled wine and that of others has helped clients connect with canned wine. Harbor Hill can make wine under its clients’ direction and to their specifications, using client grapes, storing the wine to be put into cans upon arrival of a mobile canning service, said Sam Simpson, president and CEO of Harbor Hill, an enterprise that includes Good Harbor Vineyards, Aurora Cellars, and other business lines.

Baia Estate in Northport, for example, has used Simpson for all the winery’s winemaking and bottling. Last year it canned a dry rosé that debuted exclusively in minibars in rooms at Detroit’s boutique Shinola Hotel.

Michael “Chet” Chetcuti, principal in Farm + Ferment, a holding company for businesses that include Baia Estate, Ann Arbor-based Arbor Brewing Co., Michigan Hop Alliance and Bigalora Wood Fired Cucina restaurants in southeast Michigan, said the rosé’s popularity as a bottled offering made it a natural to select for a can.

Baia plans to make the canned rosé a staple among its wines and feature it elsewhere, including in a pop-up tasting room Baia plans in downtown Northport.

“We always liked the idea of the canned package; it’s good for the summer, it’s good for the beach, it’s good for the boat, it’s good for the pool deck,” Chetcuti said. “Some people will just not have glass; it’s a nonstarter.”

Simpson’s first custom canning client was Soul Squeeze Cellars, initially for Soul Squeeze’s hard cider and then in 2017 canning a dry Riesling named Summertime Hottie. “Our mindset was that this was a Traverse City, summertime thing,” said Luke Pickelman, who co-owns Soul Squeeze Cellars with his wife Faye.

He said they produced “a couple hundred” cases that sold well, aided by tastings and a marketing piece speaking to active consumers with the promotion: “At the beach, on the boat, in the hills, get your Riesling on the move.”

Pickelman said the winery plans another production run this year and is also considering a canned rosé. Summertime Hottie is available at the Lake Leelanau tasting room that Soul Squeeze opened in early May. Pickelman said he thinks canned wine has staying power, as consumers become more comfortable with the concept and “understand that the quality is still there,” just in a different and more versatile form. It’s “a more fun, convenient method of enjoying wine,” he said.

Still, producing canned wine isn’t necessarily the direction for every winery. Eddie O’Keefe, president of Chateau Grand Traverse, said he applauds others for looking to do something new and unique but “it has not been proven to me, at least with our business model, that it is a natural fit.”

He said he’s not convinced of the consumer demand for canned wine and said he thinks most consumers still prefer wine in a bottle. O’Keefe said the logistics and economics of putting Chateau Grand Traverse’s wine in a can don’t bear out the investment, but he is investigating alternative packaging ideas such as newer-generation plastic wine bottles, which could be incorporated into Chateau Grand Traverse’ existing bottling line, to see if they might have potential as a quality packaging option in the future that consumers would take to.

What others are doing with canned wine, “I am not against at all,” O’Keefe said. “I think it’s pretty cool in fact. I just have not been sold on the concept for our style of wine products. We’re kind of sticking to our guns with the traditional model, until we see what packaging innovations emerge in our industry.”

At Harbor Hill, Simpson said that for the amount of his own canned wine that he would produce to test the market, outsourcing the canning, it wouldn’t be cost-effective. And, he said, “I think we’re a little cautious as to where we see the canned wine market going. I think we’re probably going to sit tight, and see how it evolves this year.”

Nationally, canned wine is still a tiny part of the wine market. Moramarco at BW 166 said that based on data from global information and measurement company Nielsen, canned wine store sales grew 40 percent in 2018 but held just about a .36 percent share of the overall wine category, which is dominated by bottles.

He said canned wine has appeal and usefulness to certain consumers. A consideration for local wineries getting into the trend, he said, is “to think about who is the audience they are trying to serve.”

Primarily, it may be about marketing to someone who values convenience, he said. “How do they communicate with that consumer who wants convenience?” he said. “[And] how do they build a relationship with the type of consumer locally or regionally who sees cans as a positive for their lifestyle.”

Amy Lane is a freelance journalist and former reporter for Crain’s Detroit Business, where she covered business, state government, energy and utilities for nearly 25 years.