Sommeliers offer advice on how to choose a nice can of wine

Bottles don’t go poolside.
Bottles don’t go poolside.
Image: Getty Images
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The humble aluminum can is going through a bit of a renaissance. Once relegated to airplane beverage carts and vending machines, cans are no longer the sole domain of lawnmower beers—the light, fizzy, American pilsner-style brews you might down at a barbecue. Thanks to the distinctive aluminum ubiquity of La Croix seltzer and of high-end craft beers, the can is cool again.

What better to fill one with than wine?

While still a very small part of the wine market, cans are getting attention not just because of their contents, but because of who is making them. Sommeliers and beverage directors at high-end restaurants have started creating their own canned wines—they appeal to a new generation of wine drinkers, who want to sip Chenin Blanc poolside and take their rosé to the beach. These professionals, passionate about winemaking and quality, are interested in making wine more accessible and more fun, so they’ve launched canned wine projects of their own, based on what they, and their customers, want to drink.

The wine world is changing

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Cans reflect a more casual attitude toward wine that is evolving in the US, especially among younger drinkers. “Our culture is shifting,” says Thomas Pastuszak, wine director at NoMad in New York City. “Wine used to be the fancy thing. You went out and you had a bottle of wine with dinner, as opposed to having wine with dinner at home.” Long a champion of New York State wines, Pastuszak has been making reds, whites, and rosés in the Finger Lakes for about five years, and launched Vinny, a crisp, dry sparkling white in a can this spring. 

He says that as a sommelier, he’s seen a younger audience for wine emerge, one that is less intimidated by the traditional formality surrounding wine. “They’re not afraid to ask a question that is embarrassing,” he says. 

Jordan Salcito, a sommelier who is director of wine special projects at David Chang’s Momofuku restaurant group, echoes Pastuszak. “We just have a generation or a current landscape where people are curious about wine, they want to learn more, nobody feels bounded by these fences of Chardonnay or Pinot Noir or Merlot,” she says. “People are so much more curious and open-minded and willing to try new things.”

She launched into developing Ramona, a white wine and grapefruit spritzer in a can, after a particularly intense period during which she was building a very high-end wine list for Momofuku Ko in New York City. “That led to this rebellious spirit coming out, this rebellious idea I’d had in my brain for a long time,” she says.

Cans are inherently approachable

Would-be wine drinkers are still confused, and often intimidated, by the culture surrounding wine. Cans offer a way in. ”Every single person I talk to, the first thing they say to me is, ‘I don’t know anything about wine,'” says Emma Toshack. “People don’t say that about food.” For Toshack, starting Nomadica, a canned-wine company based in Los Angeles, was as much about inviting more wine drinkers into the conversation as it was about exploring a new format. 

Working with Nomadica’s wine director, Kristin Olszewski, a sommelier at Osteria Mozza in Los Angeles, Toshack says that cans offer an opportunity to try more wines, more easily. While their wines are currently made in California and Oregon, she envisions customers taking a world tour of winemaking regions with Nomadica as the guide, one can at a time. She wants drinkers to “really understand how things are different from varietal, region, winemaking technique, within a brand that’s not pretentious, really accessible, high-end but not high snobbery.”

Cans go where bottles can’t

Wine bottles break. Once opened, resealing them can be problematic—screw caps leak and corks can dislodge. They don’t lend themselves to single servings. Cans address all those issues. “A can format is a beautiful thing because it can go to all of the places a bottle cannot go,” says Pastuszak. “In my mind I’m going to the beach with it, I’m going poolside, you don’t have to worry about broken glass. You can take it camping.”

It’s not just the fact that they’re lightweight and easy to pop open without any specialized tools. Cans reflect a state of mind. If you’re not a craft-beer drinker, and you don’t want to lug all the components for an Aperol-style spritz to the beach or if you want to drink something you really enjoy at a low-key gathering without coming off as pretentious, cans are a ready alternative.  ”There was never wine for those traditional beer moments,” says Salcito. “I wanted a thing that made sense in beer moments, but that was all natural and was organic and was something I was personally interested in consuming.”

Instagram ready, right?
Instagram ready, right?

Canned wine is eco-friendly

Wine bottles are incredibly inefficient vessels. They’re heavy. For the amount of liquid they hold, they take up a lot of room, both on shelves and in cases. They’re expensive to ship. Yes, they encourage a mysterious, unpredictable, and undeniably wonderful romance between air and fermented grape juice over time. But aging only truly benefits a small percentage of the wine being made today. Assuming you’re not going to age your wine or spritzer, a can is a better choice, and not just because you can throw it in your bag and not worry that it will break or leak.

Boxed wine, more efficient at volume, takes forever to chill and isn’t really practical if you just want a glass or two. Salcito also noted that the plastic bags within the boxes are air permeable, so the wine can oxidize over time.  “I would never put wine in a bag-in-box,” she says. 

Toshack says that she started thinking about the viability of more casual formats when she was working in Sweden and saw Chateauneuf-du-Pape, the expensive and highly respected red from the Rhone region of France, in a three-liter tetra pak. Without the weight of the glass, wine is much cheaper and more efficient to ship, which makes it possible to buy better wine for a lower price—and lower its carbon footprint.

Cans are beautiful

Cans are an increasingly powerful marketing opportunity. Once you pour a glass of wine out of the bottle, it’s practically indistinguishable from any other wine. If you snap a photo of your friends with cans of wine and post it to Instagram though, it’s easy to spot who’s drinking what.

At Nomadica, Toshack is making her wine distinctive while also providing an outlet for artists. She said that she wanted each wine’s can to look different to get at a more holistic way of describing the contents. “The idea is let’s curate things with artists, put them on the can, and match it with the wine,” she says. “What does this wine look like? What does it taste like? What does this wine sound like?  It’s this cool kind of synesthesia thing of flavor, of color, and attitude for each wine.”

How to choose wine in a can

Canned wines are starting to pop up across a wide spectrum of price points and levels of quality. So how do you decide, especially if you’re in the grocery store and not a wine store, where you’re more likely to get a great recommendation? Salcito suggests choosing organic wines if that’s possibile. ”Someone growing those grapes cares about growing them well,” she says. “You know the person making that wine is conscientious about quality on that level.”

Look for grape varietals you know you like or canned wines from a winemaker or estate that has been making wine for some time already and is just extending their offerings. “If there’s a varietal like Cabernet Sauvignon or Sauvignon Blanc or Riesling, then you are more like to be getting a true wine in a can, versus something that might say a spritzer or a radler or some sort of term that would be indicating you’re going to be getting some kind of cocktail or blended situation in a can,” Pastuszak says.

Keep in mind too, that while some canned wines can only be purchased as a four-pack, plenty also come as singles, and that format lowers your risk.

Don’t love it? Make a spritzer with extra lemon and don’t buy it again. Be fearless.

From the can or in a glass?

How do you drink a canned wine? You’re probably more likely to pour a sprizter over ice, just like you would with one of the new crop of canned cocktails that are also popping up. What if you’re pulling a can out of a cooler full of ice at a barbecue or by the pool though? Fully aware that wine drinkers are going to do whatever makes them happy, Pastuszak developed his canned wine with a very particular vision in mind.

“The can is cold, ” he says. “You snap the top and you just drink straight from it.”