Ryan Harms always imagined that he’d settle down one day and make small-batch wines on his own little plot of land. He produced his first vintage at an Oregon vineyard the same year he was allowed to legally drink. The romance of the vines was fermenting deep in his bones.
Twenty years later, he answers my call at his desk–a pool table shared between six people–before adjourning to the privacy of his office: his car. Let’s just say his dream for a tiny vineyard didn’t quite work out.
Instead, his company, Union Wine Co., became one of the biggest wine producers in Oregon, thanks largely to a single marketing campaign it launched in 2013. Aimed at making wine less snobby, Union Wine Co. produced a few thousand limited edition cans under the label Underwood for a Portland promotional event. But it wasn’t just a skinny micro can, the sort Coppola Winery had used for years for sparkling wine only. It was a 375 ml can–the equivalent to half a bottle of wine–with the same girth as a 12 oz. beer can. The two looked indistinguishable to your eye, and felt the same in your hand.
The tacitly revolutionary message was built right into the millennial-friendly packaging: Wine canned like beer doesn’t need to have corks and decanters. It can be tossed into your bag, cracked open like a Pabst, and enjoyed anywhere by anyone. Rather than pomp and circumstance, the can represented convenience–and inclusion.
Media spotted the early concept, and unintentionally, it went viral. “We realized quickly that, what had been something that we’d been excited about actually made sense as a commercial product. It was being validated,” says Harms. “And we needed to move forward as fast as we could.”
In 2017, just three years after Underwood came to market, Union Wine Co. will produce 4.2 million cans of pinot noir, bubbly rosé, and pinot gris. Cans represent 50% of its wine business, and the company will soon open a 43,000-square-foot canning facility that operates with the speed of a Coca Cola plant.
Underwood is proof that the right packaging design can actually give birth to a whole new profitable product category, capable of shifting the very identity of an industry. But Union Wine’s lead could soon be squandered. Canned wine is experiencing year after year of triple digit growth. And Underwood is now joined on the market by a slew of competitors, which have since cloned the packaging. House Wine now sells a an identical 375ml can, many others sell “tall boy” style bottles, and gargantuan winemaker E&J Gallo hasn’t cloned the casual cans outright, but has started canning wine as well.
While the exact numbers are fuzzy, Harms estimates that Underwood has a 35% market share of a $14 million industry. So to stay a step ahead, Union is creating a new kind of wine that borrows even further from the beer industry–a wine-beer-cocktail hybrid that builds on the cultural phenomenon, and the business model, that wine-in-a-can popularized.
The New Competitors
Ask Harms how he feels about competition in the space, and he has mixed feelings. He actually admits that he likes seeing other canned wines on the shelf, but he opens each with trepidation.
“Having competition has actually been good, because it’s helped validate the category. Taking a step back from that, it validates that canned wine is a category,” says Harms. “My biggest concern in having new canned wine products come in was that somebody would cheapen what was going on in some way.” Quality, in particular, is key. Underwood’s fruit-forward, relatively simple pinot noir is a respected budget wine that can please a crowd and scores well in the industry’s blind taste tests. As long as Underwood was the only label canning wine, the first drinker’s impression of canned wine on whole would be pretty positive.
So far, no competitor has tried to undercut Underwood’s $7-per-can pricing with swill, but that day feels almost inevitable. And so Harms is considering his company’s next move. “We probably have an opportunity as the first mover. It’s up for us to lose that position a little bit,” says Harms. “How cool it was to be part of something in an industry that’s not known for innovation . . . [but now it’s about] trying not to make mistakes, try to figure out how to scale, grow. Those are the things that keep me awake at night.”
The New Product
Union Wine Co., however, doesn’t plan to squander its lead. Rather than simply packing more varietals of wine in cans, it’s going to reconsider what wine could be as a canned beverage.
Wine, after all, still doesn’t fully make sense in a can. In particular, its ABV is double to triple that of most beers. Guzzle one and it’s time to put away your keys. Crack two on a hot day, enjoying the sweet refreshment from a wide-mouth top, and you’ll be down for the count.
Union Wine Co. had been addressing this categorical challenge at its own promotional events already–how could they serve people wine in cans without getting everyone loaded? “We started a number of years ago doing wine cocktails a lot for events in Portland. People loved it,” says Harms. “As time went on, there were things we started to refine as recipes people seemed to like, and it seemed like the time was coming where the wine cooler was coming back.”
In this new boozy space we’re in, where many are putting down their prohibition-era Manhattans for lighter spritzers, Union Wine is releasing the wine cooler 2.0. This August, it will launch the Underwood Radler. Developed in-house and wrapped in a new Hawaiian print can, it’s a riesling at its core, but it’s flavored with hops and malt, like beer. It’s also mixed with grapefruit juice, like your typical citrusy shandy. It’s carbonated, with a 6% ABV right in line with your typical craft brew.
As strange as this approach may seem–a respected winery is selling wine coolers–Harms argues that it’s right in line with Union Wine Co.’s approach. “It’s playing with that whole idea of the beerification of wine. It’s hitting that on the nose,” he says. “This would be a seasonal offering for us. Like in the craft beer industry–they have seasonals. Wine doesn’t have that. We have a season with every vintage.”
A seasonal wine cooler is just self-aware enough to fit right in line with products like La Croix and other low-brow canned beverages that serve as millennial cultural touchstones. Because every young person today has a favorite craft beer, sure. But they also have a favorite shamelessly cheap soda water or beer, consumed with as much pride as any pricey alternative.
While the Radler isn’t High Life or Milwaukee’s Best, it’s still designed to be budget-conscious, and to widen the margins of wine as a product. By cutting the most expensive ingredient of the beverage–fermented grapes–with less expensive components, Union Wine Co. can sell four packs for less. Radlers will still debut for $6 apiece (or $24/pack), but one could imagine a premium wine cooler going a bit cheaper, to not just be canned like craft beer, but priced like craft beer, too. With the Radler, Underwood is less likely to be undercut in pricing wars–all without compromising the integrity of the Oregon grapes inside the can.
As for Harms, I can’t help but wonder if the 21-year-old inside of him still misses the prospect of a small-batch winery, as the entrepreneur in him cans countless liters of wine a year.
“It was not at all where I’d have expected my career or business would have gone,” says Harms. But then he reminds me, and perhaps, himself, that Union Wine Co. is still a craft company, of sorts. “There are facilities in California that make the same volume of the entire state of Oregon in a given year,” he says. “In the global wine community, we’re still a small winery.”