Two Canned Wines That Are Worth a Damn

Canned wine is having a moment right now. Sales are skyrocketing as people (more younger than older) respond to what is undeniably a great value proposition: smaller quantities, portability, chillability, cute packaging, and the ability to open and drink one without a corkscrew or a glass.

Yet even now, canned wine suffers a bit from the same problem as bag-in-a-box wines: few people are putting decent wines into this format. That’s rapidly changing though, as many traditional wineries are waking up to the potential of this format. I wrote about the rise of canned wines for Jancis Robinson earlier in the year, describing how companies like Free Flow Wines can barely keep up with the demand from new producers and old, all of whom want to put their wines in aluminum.

I haven’t made anything close to a comprehensive tasting survey of wine in cans (as if such a thing were possible given the rate at which new ones are popping up) but I’ve tried a bunch and found most to be lackluster. The most promising variety seem to be the rosés, whose crisp acidity and affinity for fridge temperatures seem to do best in the canned format.

However I’ve come across two wines recently that have significantly upped the game when it comes to wine in a can.

The first is a remarkably decent rendition of Pinot Noir from MAKER wines, a wine label that grew out of a year-end Stanford Business School project by Sarah Hoffman and Kendra Kawala. I actually was a guest speaker in their Business of Wine class when these two ladies were finishing their MBAs, and they cornered me after class to excitedly tell me about their idea, which was basically to go out and find good winemakers that would be willing to collaborate on making great small-batch editions of canned wine.

It’s been pretty cool to see them go from idea to execution, and while their first efforts were just OK, this latest Pinot Noir is very tasty and definitely worth drinking, as it is a collaboration with Lulu Handley. If that name sounds familiar, it should. Lulu is the daughter of Milla Handley, the Anderson Valley Pinot Noir pioneer that we tragically lost to Covid-19 a few weeks ago. Under Lulu’s direction, the wine was made by long-time Handley winemaker Randy Schock, and the collaboration with MAKER has yielded by far the best canned Pinot Noir I have had the pleasure of tasting.

And now for something completely different.

Most Americans have not had the pleasure of drinking sparkling red wine. Sparkling Shiraz is a sort of underground cult wine in Australia, and Lambrusco has long since dropped off of most Americans’ radar. But sparkling red wine can be wonderfully refreshing, not to mention a tasty thing to drink with dinner.

William Allen, like many of us men, could only avoid listening to the advice of the woman in his life for so long. His partner, Karen Daenen, has been telling him he ought to try making wine in a can for some time. With a day job running consumer research for Jackson Family Wines, her opinions often carry some weight in the Two Shepherds household.

But Allen wasn’t impressed with most canned wines he had tried, and hadn’t come across the right batch of fruit in his portfolio to try it. But then two things happened in rapid succession. He made a new rosé from a batch of Yolo County Cinsault he didn’t love, and Covid-19 exploded on the world.

“Frankly, I was afraid we were going to go out of business,” he says. “So I shut everything down—threw everything into stainless, locked it up tight, and prepared to weather the storm.”

But like many small producers who had fully embraced social media and DTC sales, Two Shepherds saw a significant bump in sales as people stocked up for the lockdown and rallied to support the brands they love. All of a sudden, Allen had some breathing room and more than a little time on his hands.

“So I started experimenting to see what could make this rosé better,” he says. His winery is next door to a cider maker and brewery, so he put on his mask and wandered over to see what carbonation might do to the texture of the wine. It helped. But not enough.

And then, in a flash of insight, he thought to blend in some of the carbonically macerated Carignan that he had sitting in a tank, and the wine came alive.

“Call it a combination of trial and error, luck, and some good winemaking, but it just sang,’ says Allen. The only thing left to do was to figure out what to call it. And since his donkey had just given birth to a new baby girl a few weeks before, he chose little Luna as the namesake for the perfect pandemic wine label if there ever was one: a baby donkey kicking the now-familiar Coronavirus cell model.

Therefore this can of wine can rightfully be described as Kick-Ass Organic Southern-Rhone Party-in-a-Can. It’s delicious, and is not only the best sparkling red wine I’ve ever had from California, it’s the best sparkling red I’ve had that isn’t one of the new-wave Lambruscos that are deservedly turning heads among the wine cognoscenti.

You’ve been warned. Canned wine is now officially a thing, and here are two worth buying by the six pack.

2019 MAKER “Lulu Handley” Pinot Noir, Anderson Valley, Mendocino, California
Medium garnet in color, this wine smells of raspberry and cherry fruit. In the mouth, bright raspberry cherry and herb flavors have excellent acidity and a faint tannic backbone, that gives it some nice dimensionality. Brisk and fresh thanks to the low, 13% alcohol. Packaged in six-packs of 250ml cans. Score: around 8.5. Cost: $10. Currently available as part of a mixed six-pack, or individually to members of their Can Club. click to buy

2019 Two Shepherds “Bucking Luna” Sparkling Cinsault, California
Medium garnet in color with mellow, small bubbles that fade quickly, this wine smells of sweet berries and a touch of dried flowers. In the mouth, a very faint mousse delivers crisp flavors of mulberries, cherries, and a touch of dried herbs that all have a wonderful freshness thanks to a very low octane 10.5% alcohol. Excellent acidity plus the bubbles make this a damn refreshing mouthful. Think: the organically-farmed NorCal answer to Lambrusco. Gimme a six-pack of this and a pepperoni pizza and watch out! Contains 25% carbonically macerated Carignan. Packaged in 375ml cans. Score: between 8.5 and 9. Cost: $11 per can, $118 per twelve-pack. click to buy