Ken Robertson

Are canned wines the next great thing?

You can always grab a wine lover’s attention by popping a cork. We respond like Pavlov’s dog and automatically begin to salivate. Now, winemakers and marketers are posing a new test: Can we be trained to respond the same way to the snap of a pop-top on a can of wine?

Since canned beverages long have been associated with beer and soda, for many wine folks the automatic reaction will be, “Nah, cans aren’t for good wine.” I saw that earlier this year I served as a judge at a major Northwest wine judging I Cannon Beach. The panel I was serving on had just voted a sparkling dry Muscat a gold medal, and when it was announced that it was a canned wine, we three who had deemed it gold-worthy got a few looks from other judges that appeared to range from surprise to dismay to maybe even a little shock.

We all know that look: It unmistakably says: “How could you?”

Well, we could, because the wine was quite good and impressed us all. Because it was judged blind, we had no idea who made it and not a clue about its packaging. But we discovered it was crisp, dry, tasty and showed “generous aromas and flavors of grapefruit and lemon with plenty of bubbly acidity to balance a touch of sweetness,” as I later wrote in a review. It was “Beach daze white bubbly wine,” with no vintage marked, made at Lake Chelan Winery and labeled for Lake Chelan Winery.

A few months later, I was working another large competition put on by Great Northwest Wine, this time writing wine reviews of the gold medal winners. At that event, a beautiful Rosé of Sangiovese won gold, judged by a totally different set of judges.

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When I went to pick up the wine in the competition’s back room to taste it and write my review, it also turned out to be a canned wine — this one from a producer who arguably makes one of the Northwest’s most consistently outstanding rosés, Barnard Griffin in Richland, Wash.

Labeled “C’est le vin Barnard Griffin,” it shares almost the same pedigree as the bottled version, which has won gold medals and sweepstake awards repeatedly at the San Francisco Wine Competition, the nation’s largest such event. Along the way, the BG Rosé of Sangiovese also has become the winery’s biggest seller, eclipsing its Chardonnay.

The differences are slight, explained Rob Griffin, the winery’s co-owner and winemaker. Because the nation’s millennials expect a canned beverage to have a bit of carbonation, Griffin’s canned wines get a little dose of bubbles. And because they also expect a canned beverage to have a touch of sweetness, the canned version retains a little more sugar. That’s neatly offset by the CO2, which dissolves into the wine, turning into carbonic acid. The result is a drink with a dash of bubbles, and, in the finish, just a touch of sweetness as the acidity fades when the CO2 bubbles out.

Over the summer, I’ve sampled a dozen or so different wines packaged in cans. Some are superb and offer excellent quality at a bargain price. And many are readily available at your nearby grocer. I’ve seen many rosés, Chardonnays, Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Gris, sparkling rosé, Pinot Noir and several red blends.

The producers range from our largest Northwest wineries such as 14 Hands down to smaller, family-owned wineries. For Rob Griffin, part of the impetus to produce the C’est le Vin wines came from Megan Hughes, his daughter and assistant winemaker, and Liz Moss, the tasting room and wine club manager. Both wanted to try a new way to reach their millennial generation, which has been slow to warm to the world of wine.

“I think millennials may be the easiest market to hit,” Hughes said. “What’s happening now is different.” She sees cans as also appealing to anyone who wants to sip a little wine in places where portability is a plus and a glass bottle might be a liability, such as the beach, the pool or a picnic.

For them and for many other wineries, canned wines thus offer a chance to reach a new market. BG aims to expand its production, all in cans, by about 10% by 2020. The proliferation of wine in cans suggests many other are embarking on the same journey.

Wine words: Aspect

In the world of wine, this is one of those terms that seems simple, but that has a rather complicated aspect to it. (Pun intended.) A vineyard’s aspect includes such topographical attributes as its altitude, the directions the vines face and the slope of the site.

Aspect plays a critical role in the site’s growing conditions, affects how the vines will be pruned over the summer growing season and may require the grower to adjust application of irrigation water.

For example, on Washington state’s celebrated Red Mountain AVA, a long, sloping site that extends down to the south and southwest, the vines are largely laid out in and east-west direction designed to maximize the vines and the grapes exposure to heat and sunlight, especially during the typically long and warm late summer and fall afternoons.

Since the grape most commonly grown there is Cabernet Sauvignon, a notoriously late-ripening grape, that orientation helps capture the warmest part of those afternoons and helps ensure ripe grapes.

During the hottest part of the summer, the viticulturist may want to protect the southwest side of a vineyard from the late afternoon heat by allowing the leaf canopy to shade the grape clusters. By mid- or late September, the leaf canopy may be pruned back to allow more sun to warm the grapes and promote fall ripening.

In the spring, Red Mountain’s downhill slope to the south and southwest helps promote air drainage down toward the Yakima River Valley during critical times when a late frost might damage the buds and lower grape yields. The downhill slope channels heavier, colder air down toward the river and away from the vines.

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