When my two sons were sub-teenagers, I occasionally took them and a couple of their friends backpacking in California’s High Sierras Mountains. These expeditions were very different from what you see in today’s wilderness areas. Since we had no tents we slept out in the open, praying it wouldn’t rain (I kept a heavy spoon and metal pot nearby to bang on in case of bear visitation, but luckily never had to put this dubious deterrent to the test). We carried our few supplies--sleeping bags, canteens of water, packets of freeze dried food--in old Army surplus backpacks.
Dressed in generic jeans and t-shirts, with our heavy, ancient gear on our backs, we were probably the least elegant hikers on the trail, but I think we all had a good time anyway. Okay, maybe not so much that time we were stranded on a bare granite cliff face during a hail-storm, but most of time we enjoyed hot, dry days and sleep-inducing cool nights, and we were forever awed by the jaw-droppingly dramatic landscape, and stars that appeared close enough to touch.
Only one thing was missing from this idyllic picture: WINE! While the sun dipped towards the horizon and my aching shoulders were freed from the heavy backpack all I could think about as I stirred boiling water into dehydrated beef stroganoff was how much I wanted a few sips of wine. Not a lot of wine--I was, after all, responsible for a gaggle of young boys, plus we were at a fairly high altitude--but I would have been truly thankful for a small vinous reward at day’s end. I now know that what I needed was a can of wine. Small, lightweight, pretty much indestructible and requiring no corkscrew or other gadget to open, a can of wine would have been the perfect reward after a day on the trail. Sadly, however, wine-in-a-can wasn’t yet a thing way back then.
Even today, canned wine accounts for a mere fraction of a market that includes boxes and Tetra Paks, but the category is growing quickly. According to Nielsen, “there are now 22 wine brands that can 386 different wine items and generate more than $81 million in annual sales. A year ago, canned wine accounted for about $46 million in annual sales.” Meanwhile, FoodBev Media inform us that Millennial drinkers are one of the main driving forces behind canned wine because they like the “convenience of canned wines being sold in single measures, alongside the environmental benefits of the recyclability of cans over glass bottles.”
Can we talk about those environmental benefits for a minute? In the United States metal cans are by far the most recycled food and beverage containers, with some 105,784 aluminum cans (and 20,000 steel cans) being recycled every minute. Aluminum can potentially be recycled over and over indefinitely (the can that contains your Chardonnay today might potentially be recycled and filled with Pinot Noir, or perhaps tomato juice, in a couple of months).
One downside of aluminum is that it is made from bauxite, a compound found near the equator in places like China, Australia and Guinea, and turning bauxite into aluminum requires a lot of energy. Bauxite production is also responsible for a variety of negative environmental impacts that directly affect surrounding human and animal life. Of course, glass production also involves some negative environmental issues, but the real reason that most environmentalists favor aluminum is that it is lighter to transport than glass, and consequently lighter on energy consumption (and especially lighter than those ridiculously heavy glass bottles favored by so many of today’s wineries).
How concerned should we be about BPA, or Bisphenol A, a chemical that keeps food from reacting to aluminum and that may be present in a can’s lining? I put the question to Ryan Harms, the founder and owner of Union Wine Company (Underwood canned wines), who answered in an email: “We know BPA is a sensitive topic for some consumers… our cans are lined with an epoxy resin that acts as a protective barrier between the wine and the aluminum. Any trace amounts of BPA that our wine might be exposed to from this lining are far below what the US Food & Drug Administration have deemed safe. Technology is always evolving, and we will continue to evaluate new materials if they become available to our industry.”
In addition to aluminum’s smaller carbon footprint there are certainly many arguments to be made in support of canned wine. No more corked wines. No more cork-pulls to wrestle with, and no more cumbersome glasses to lug along in your backpack or picnic basket. Instead of schlepping heavy, breakable bottles to the beach or the park, wouldn’t it make sense to bring cans of wine instead?
Canned wines tend to be comparatively inexpensive: Generally speaking you’ll pay $4 to $8 for a 375-ml can, which is equivalent to about half a bottle of wine, or 2 ½ glasses. Quality, or course, varies a lot too. After recently tasting a few selections from a handful of different brands of canned wine here are my general impressions:
Barefoot (E&J Gallo, Modesto, California) “Refresh” Moscato Spritzer, Four 250ML cans $7 (6.5% alcohol): Lightly floral and drier than I’d expected, this fun spritzer is bursting with summery suggestions of apricot and peach. This is exactly the sort of wine I would’ve loved to have had, chilled in a mountain stream, after a day of hiking.
Canned Oregon (A new brand for the Stoller Wine Company), $8 / 375ML can (12.5% alcohol); “Oregon White Bubbles” (sparkling white blend, primarily Chardonnay): A refreshingly bright, fruity sparkler distinguished by medium bubbles and a clean taste.
Dark Horse (E&J Gallo, Modesto, California) $5/ 375ML can (10%-12% alcohol) “Brut Bubbles”: The flavors in this Chardonnay blend are light and fresh, but the effusive bubbles make this sparkler seem on the palate more like beer than wine.
--Rosé: With its up-front strawberry flavor this moderately dry pink wine is pleasantly refreshing when thoroughly chilled.
--Pinot Noir: Reasonably dry, with notes of red fruits. Could be a good accompaniment to outdoorsy food such as hot dogs and maybe even burgers.
Underwood (Union Wine Company) Tualitin, Oregon, $8/375ML can (13% alcohol) Pinot Gris: I fell in love with this Pinot Gris for its gracefully balanced fruit (a little lemon, a smidge of pear), its sophisticated mouthfeel and its overall savory impressions.
--Pinot Noir: This is a deliciously delicate Pinot, with just the right degree of strawberry and cherry accents plus subtle, earthy backnotes.