Brandon Scott Herrell
Wine is for snobs: stuck-up rich people who sip expensive grape juice from fancy goblets held with their pinkies out in between spoonfuls of caviar dipped into Grey Poupon.
Okay, maybe that’s not entirely accurate. But wine certainly does have a reputation as a somewhat inaccessible beverage -- unlike beer, which has a relatively lower barrier to entry.
On the other hand, if you’ve been paying attention to the wine industry lately, you might be getting the feeling that times are changing: Wine is now available in cans. Wine taprooms -- pouring kegged wine “on draught” -- are opening across the country in major cities. Some wine is even being dry-hopped.
Ben Parsons, founder of Denver-based The Infinite Monkey Theorem Urban Winery, doesn’t quite see it that way. Far from a wine purist, Parsons points to the fact that he started canning wine back in 2010, figuring, at the time, that millennials who grew up drinking Coke and Pepsi from cans would naturally be comfortable drinking wine from them, too.
The can, however, was just one tool Parsons used to modernize the hell out of his brand. He also kegged his product; he opened a wine taproom in the middle of beer country (in Denver, Colorado -- and a second in Austin, Texas, another city not known for vino); and he emblazoned his cans with eye-catching graphics. Though these may sound like choices a brewery would make, Parsons claims he's not merely taking cues from the beer industry. “It’s more about making wine relevant,” he explains.
But what is it that makes these things relevant?
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Field Recordings in Paso Robles also produces wine in cans. Not only is their stuff distributed to 38 states, but if you’re truly committed to the canned wine life, they have a club that entitles members to five incredible canned wines each quarter. Recently, the winery released a wine called Weissland, a sparkling chardonnay fermented entirely with beer yeast from Libertine Brewing Co. As winemaker Andrew Jones explains, “I use two different saison strains and a farmhouse yeast to ferment it, and we dry-hop it with Amarillo.”
Dry-hopping has been “a thing” amongst modern craft brewers for some time. Anchor Brewing has been dry-hopping its Liberty Ale since 1975; the beer has stood the test of time in part due to its mouthwatering hop aromas. And while you might not associate wine with hops, it’s now “a thing” for modern wineries to add it to their products, too.
After trying a dry-hopped Sauvignon Blanc from New Zealand a few years back, Ben Parsons gave the technique a go. “We played around with different hop styles,” he says. “The Sauv Blanc wine complements the Citra aromas, and the two play off each other really well. The bittering units of the hops make the product thirst-quenching, given that the pH level is lower than most beers.”
Hops gel with other styles of wine, as well. Just ask Union Wine Co’s founder and head winemaker Ryan Harms, who found success with the Riesling Radler. “I think the idea for the radler came from the staff enjoying Stiegl-Radler Grapefruit on a regular basis, especially in the summer months,” he explains. “And one of my growers for wine grapes is a large hop grower, as well. It was a new way for us to further work with one of our growers to leverage another product, and integrate it into our winemaking.”
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The Riesling is made with Cascade and Crystal hops from the previously referenced Goschie Farms, and Harms says that “the hops definitely bring a little bit of that phenolic quality that plays nicely with the Riesling, which gives you grapefruit and aromatics.” While the hop aromas aren’t strong, the hops do offer an added layer of complexity to the seriously refreshing beverage. It’s not a conventional radler, but it’s worthy of the beer style’s moniker nonetheless.
Take a gander at Union’s radler packaging -- or any of its Underwood line of wines -- and you might be convinced you’re looking at a can of beer. The same goes for cans of Infinite Monkey or Field Recording, too (FR’s Foxie Spritzer -- with rosé, grapefruit, and Simcoe hops -- is a current favorite of mine, both taste- and design-wise). They’re bold. They’re modern. You won’t find any ostentatious calligraphy or penciled drawings of vineyards that you’ve seen seen on so many boring bottles of vino.
The beerification of wine now goes beyond product and design, and has begun to influence the drinking experience itself. As Harms explains, “Someone can pick up 22oz of a great beer [for] around $4. Then that person’s sitting around with a bunch of friends drinking beer. And I’m sure there are [some] groups nosing it and talking about the attributes -- but so often, people are consuming these great products, but don’t seem to be caught up in… ‘Do I know what I’m doing? Am I holding the glass right? Do I look sophisticated?’” Harms would love for more wine lovers to have the “casual relationship” with their product that beer lovers do.
If Harms gets his way, wine purchasing will continue to feel less like eHarmony, and more like Tinder. The sessionable Riesling radler might be the ideal mascot to lead the way: the fruity, easy-drinking liquid and its playful, jungle-themed label certainly invite you to kick back and (Netflix and) chill.
Meanwhile, Andrew Jones loves the similarly fast-moving nature of the craft beer scene. “Breweries like Other Half, Tired Hands, and Monkish are [releasing] rotational products that are new and innovative, with new [beers] coming out constantly.” And collaboration is something he especially admires about the beer world. “I think you’ll see more of that on the wine side at a certain point.” He’s clearly comfortable taking the lead on that side of things, having collaborated on beers with Bruery Terreux and Libertine Brewing. He’s even currently working on a brew with American Solera.
“The wine industry is 4500 years old,” Parsons concludes. “There’s only one industry older; I think you can figure that one out.” (We can!) “For whatever reason, wine has lagged behind the beer industry in marketing, branding, and in its perception. And it’s self-perpetuating in that it keeps itself so pretentious that it’s almost unapproachable for so many people. What we’re trying to do as a winery -- by locating in cities, putting wine in kegs, [opening] taprooms, putting wine in cans, hopping wines -- it’s all about making wine fun, accessible, and relevant to everyone.”
That’s something beer fans can get behind.
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