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Canned wine receives unexpected praise at North Coast Wine Challenge

At the recent North Coast Wine Challenge (NCWC) there was an unexpected victor — a canned wine that won a gold medal with 96 points.

The Maker 2019 Mendocino, California Viognier, produced by Campovida Wines, surprised the judges when they sipped through a flight of canned wines.

“The score was because the wine was that good,” said judge and vintner Nick Goldschmidt. “I hope buyers stand behind this wine.”

Judge and wine writer Chris Sawyer agreed. Like Goldschmidt, Sawyer not only has an exceptional palate, but he’s brutally honest in his assessments about wine.

“It tasted better than 90% of the bottled viogniers that are currently available in the marketplace,” he said.

This viognier, Sawyer said, is one of the finest examples of the potential of canned wines.

The beauty of a blind tasting is that it tells the unmitigated truth. It has the ability to disrupt assumptions with a paradigm shift.

The high score and the judges’ sentiments made me curious. Could the rating signify a tipping point in canned wines? Are premium wineries and consumers no longer turning their noses up to a can format? And just who is behind this 96-point rating?

Cofounders Sarah Hoffman and Kendra Kawala, two upstart millennials, are behind Maker, a new company that cans premium wine and entered the viognier in the competition. They joined forces to instigate a canned wine revolution of sorts.

“The high score is incredible validation for us and our little company, but we want this (canned wine) to become a movement that’s much larger than ourselves,” said Hoffman, CEO of Maker.

Baby Boomers will be driving the wine market for roughly four more years, said COO Kawala. But, she explained, there’s a slow, generational changing of the guard to tech-driven millennials and Gen Z, those 21 and younger.

“They want something local, small-batch and something that has a human story,” Kawala said.

That echoes Maker’s motto on its website, makerwine.com: “Under-the-radar wine. Over-the-top stories. Small-batch wine made by unconventional people — in a can.”

The vintners

The story Maker tells about the producer of the winning viognier — Campovida — is that its vintners are renegades of sorts. Husband-and-wife team Anna Beuselinck and Gary Breen quit their corporate jobs and cashed out their 401ks. In 2010 the couple bought Brown-Forman’s old Fetzer Valley Oaks property, a 50-acre overgrown farm and vineyard in Hopland, and took a chance on making viognier. The wine highlights the winery’s approach to terroir-driven, sustainable farming.

The viognier has won accolades in the past in the bottle format, but this is the first year a canned version has won awards.

“We’re thrilled to hear of the high score and the gold medal and also not surprised,” Beuselinck said. “We have such confidence in this beautiful wine and its expression. The award is a clear example that the quality of the wine is not limited by the container.”

Matt Hughes is the winemaker and the viognier is sourced from a single vineyard that has been farmed organically for more than two decades on the estate at Campovida.

“It’s a wine in its purest form without distractions such as new oak — just the grapes and their voice,” Beuselinck said.

Hoffman said the 96-point score is an “amazing data point. We’re putting our wines in prestigious wine competitions to show that cans as well as bottles can be a great format for premium wine.”

At this year’s Sunset International Wine Competition, this viognier also won a gold medal, with Maker’s 2019 Sparkling Sauvignon Blanc snagging a gold medal as well. At the International Women’s Wine Competition this year, Maker reeled in a gold for its 2018 Chenin Blanc.

This is the first year the North Coast Wine Challenge accepted canned wine entries, with three producers entering seven wines. Organizers expect to reel in more canned entries next year and plan to integrate them into the competition rather than keep them in a separate category.

“I think the correct observation here is that producers are stepping up and realizing there’s a demand for quality wine in a can,” said Daryl Groom, chief wine judge and partner of the competition. “My experience before was that most were California appellation and aimed at a cheaper price. With these it’s great to see a higher appellation.”

The quality in canned wine has markedly improved, according to Corey Beck, CEO of Geyserville’s Francis Ford Coppola Winery.

“Canned wine has gotten a lot better over the last few years and it’s because our industry is working together to share best practices,” he said. “One of them is using no to little oak and low SO2 (sulphur dioxide) levels.”

Beck said varietals that seem to fare best are viognier and chardonnay.

With technology now in check, Kawala said Maker is bucking what’s expected in cans by showcasing premium wine with a vintage date and an American Viticulture Area (AVA) designation on the label.

Maker’s goal, the partners said, is to offer a new distribution channel for smaller producers while becoming a destination for the next generation of wine drinkers.

“We have our eye on Sonoma and Mendocino counties because they have stellar grapes, great winemaking talent and untold stories,” she said.

Reaching millennials

Hoffman, 30, and Kawala, 29, say they know how to tap into their generation of drinkers. This should pique the interest of the wine industry, which continues to grapple with how to reach them. In fact, in Silicon Valley Bank’s most recent State of the Wine Industry videocast, it touched on this dilemma. Amy Hoopes, president of Wente Vineyards, chimed in, referring to millennials as “elusive unicorns.”

If the wine industry wants to capture these evasive creatures, it would be wise to pay attention to these Stanford-educated unicorns. They do seem savvy enough to create a canned wine movement by attracting their own.

Maker experienced 400% growth in revenue from the first quarter of this year to the second. While the partners preferred not to disclose figures, they said the spiral in sales was due to satisfying their customers’ desires for high-quality, single-serving options delivered to their door while they sheltered in place.

The viognier is $8 a can and $48 for a six-pack.

“We’re making premium wine more accessible,” Kawala said. “You don’t have to buy the whole $60 bottle of wine.”

In the fall of 2018 Hoffman and Kawala began working on Maker in Stanford’s “Start-up Garage” course. They visited 50 independent wineries across California and learned about the shifts in the industry that put small operators at a disadvantage. They realized these wineries wanted to grow but had trouble reaching the next generation of wine drinkers.

After graduating with master’s degrees in business administration last year, Hoffman and Kawala set Maker in motion with production this year. The company reeled out roughly 50,000 250 ml cans, equivalent to 1,500 bottle cases of wine. Maker has an office in Novato and a storage facility in Napa’s American Canyon.

Maker taps the talent of small producers in Wine Country, buying their signature or estate wines. Once the finished wine is ready, the company relies on a mobile canning company — The Can Van — which draws the wine straight from the winemaker’s tank. Maker has a “can coach” — Chris Christensen — who consults with winemakers to fine-tune the process.

“We’re not winemakers or vineyard managers, so we surround ourselves with the experts,” Kawala said. “But we are curators and storytellers.”

Hoffman and Kawala said other esteemed producers canning premium wines include Sonoma’s West & Wilder; Napa’s Gina & Jake of Sans Wine Co.; Santa Cruz’s Ryan Stirm of Companion Wine Co. and South African importer Lubanzi, co-founded by Charles Brain.

“We don’t see them as competitors,” Hoffman said. “We view other premium canned wines as helping us push forward this format.”

A can, put simply, is a format that caters to the lifestyle of millennials, Kawala explained.

“We hear this from moms all the time: ’The cans fit so much better in the baby stroller,’” she said. “And on Tuesday night in front of Netflix, do you want to open an entire bottle or crack a can?”

Wine writer Peg Melnik can be reached at peg.melnik@pressdemocrat.com or 707-521-5310.

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