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The wine business is slowly turning to aluminum cans in response to the consumer demands of millennials, a panel of industry leaders noted on Thursday.

To be sure, the amount of wine sold in cans is still very small. Nielsen Co. reported that retail sales of wine in cans on an annual basis increased to $14.5 million in 2016 from $6.4 million in 2015. The gain, which represented a 125 percent annual increase, stood out in a sector where overall U.S. wine shipments only grew 2.8 percent last year. “Five years from now, we might not be having this conversation,” said Ashley Sebastionelli, president and co-founder of Lucky Clover Packaging, a Maryland-based firm that produces marketing sleeves for cans, of the wisdom of packaging wine in cans. Sebastionelli and others spoke Thursday at the Wine Industry Network Expo held at the Sonoma County Fairgrounds.

Representatives of both the wine and can industry said that vintners cannot ignore the massive changes that have already occurred in the craft beer sector, where longtime holdouts such as Boston Beer Co. and Lagunitas Brewing Co. in Petaluma began offering their products in cans after initial reluctance — and then saw their sales grow. They were forced to make the change as their younger customers flocked to cans, in part because they’re more portable and durable and can be taken on activities such as a hike or a music festival.

“I see nothing but blue sky,” said Jim Doehring, founder of Backpack Wine Co., an Illinois-based wine company that this year has had its canned wine products sold at or just outside three NFL stadiums on game day.

Francis Ford Coppola Winery in Geyserville pioneered the effort, introducing in 2004 its Sofia brand of sparkling wine in a 187-milliter can. The company was back again this year unveiling its Diamond Collection of chardonnay, pinot grigio, and sauvignon blanc in cans.

The Diamond collection will get a bigger marketing push next summer, said Jennifer Leitman, senior vice president of marketing at Francis Ford Coppola Winery. She noted that consumers who like wine in cans are less impressed with vintages or wine ratings and more enamored with being able to take it almost anywhere and post pictures of the cans on social media.

“It’s more about the lifestyle,” Leitman said.

There have been some recent signs that bigger players are taking notice, especially because wineries can save on production and transportation costs with wine in cans as opposed to the traditional 750-milliter bottle. Terlato Wines of Lake Bluff, Illinois last year launched two of its Seven Daughters wine products in cans, while the nation’s largest wine company, E & J Gallo Winery in Modesto, has put its Barefoot wine spritzer into cans.

While conceding that the wine industry is much more conservative than craft brewers, Doehring said he is optimistic given the gains already made, even though some aficionados may scoff at the product. He said the bigger obstacles come from the distributor and retail level, where those industries do not know how to properly market canned wines for consumers.

“You have to put on the Indiana Jones hat and whip to go find us,” he said of the product. “Eventually, we will chip into that. It will take time.”

You can reach Staff Writer Bill Swindell at 521-5223 or bill.swindell@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @BillSwindell.

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