Oregon-based Union Wine to release Underwood pinot noir in cans this June; each can holds equivalent of half a bottle of wine, weighs approximately half as much as bottled wine, does not alter flavor of wine
May 29, 2014
– Forget the winding gravel road, the bucolic scenery and the neat rows of vines; Union Wine Co. is tucked into the back of a Tualatin industrial yard. Visitors must navigate past massive stacks of steel pilings to find any evidence of winemaking.
The payoff is the sight of four building-sized cylinders gleaming silver in the sun. They’re stainless-steel wine tanks, on a scale we don’t often see around here.
This doesn’t look much like your typical Willamette Valley winery.
Union Wine Co.’s newest product doesn’t look anything like your typical Oregon wine bottle, either. It, too, happens to be a silver cylinder, on a much-smaller scale.
It’s pinot noir in a beer can.
Starting in June, nearly 200,000 of these cans will hit store shelves under the Underwood label.
Since Underwood is already sold in bottles, Union Wine Co. can always return to glass if its aluminum-can gamble doesn’t work out. Each of those giant steel tanks stores 34,000 gallons of wine, making for a flexible business plan.
But given the preliminary buzz, this product won’t just launch, it’ll fly. Underwood’s canned wine has already been featured everywhere from Fast Company to Fox News, from Forbes to Buzzfeed. And it hasn’t even hit the market yet.
The can concept isn’t entirely new to the United States; Francis Ford Coppola Winery has offered its Sofia sparkling wine in petite pink 187-ml cans for a decade. But the Underwood cans are twice the size of the minis. Each can holds the equivalent of a half-bottle of wine, and two cans, stacked vertically in a cardboard sleeve, occupy the same retail-shelf footprint as a single bottle of wine. Ounce for ounce, the cans weigh approximately half as much as bottled wine, reducing waste and streamlining resources significantly.
But how does it taste? The can does not alter the flavor of the wine, so it’s just as good as Underwood out of a bottle. Which is to say, it’s Oregon pinot for the ballpark (you hear that, Portland Timbers?) or the outdoor barbecue.
Underwood pinot noir is composed of grapes sourced from all over Oregon and sells for approximately $12 when it’s packaged in glass. It’s the bargain brand from Union Wine Co., which also peddles a Willamette Valley pinot noir for about $18 a bottle under the Kings Ridge label. At the top tier is Alchemist, made from a selection of Kings Ridge fruit and selling in the $28 price range. Together, the portfolio is the brainchild of oeno-entrepreneur Ryan Harms, 37.
The Willamette Valley winemaking elite can, at times, feel like a conclave of atavism, artistry and nature-worship, with an apparent disregard for the bottom line. Harms unapologetically espouses a different credo: “There are a lot of people who have products but don’t necessarily have brands,” he says. “I want to focus on building brands and not necessarily products.”
Harms moved to Oregon in 2001 and worked for Bergstrom and Torii Mor. Sometime around then, he met Cheryl Francis and Sam Tannahill, the husband-and-wife winemaking partners who co-own A to Z Wineworks. Harms went on to take over winemaking duties at Rex Hill in 2004; the A to Z team purchased Rex Hill three years later.
A decade ago, the idea of an affordable, widely distributed, good-quality Oregon pinot noir was revolutionary. And in a state where the average winery turns out about 5,000 cases of boutique wines annually, A to Z remains an anomaly. It’s currently Oregon’s top producer, according to Oregon Wine Press, with an annual production volume of some 300,000 cases and a pinot noir that sells for as little as $14.
“There was a part of me looking at what they (Francis and Tannahill) had accomplished with A to Z,” Harms recalls. “It was a great business model and they were delivering something that didn’t yet exist in the market.”
So when the A to Z team decided to offload Rex Hill’s second label, Kings Ridge, Harms jumped at the opportunity. He and business partner George Hilberry purchased the Kings Ridge label and founded Union Wine Co. in 2005 (Harms would buy Hilberry out in 2011); they added the two additional labels to their portfolio in 2006 and 2010. Today, Union Wine Co. is one of Oregon’s top 10 wine producers by volume.
Given his rapid rise over the past decade, Harms appear to be an extremely shrewd dealmaker. But he claims to have never envisioned a business plan. “I’m very guilty of seeing opportunities in the marketplace and trying to fill them with products without thinking about how they relate to each other,” Harms admits.
With his Underwood cans set to hit the market in June, Harms made a surprise announcement in late April: Union Wine Co. had purchased Amity Vineyards, a quaint and historic local producer known for its “Eco-Wine” no-sulfite pinot, a fruity gamay noir and a petrol-fumed, old-world-style riesling.
The sale included a 13.5-acre vineyard planted in 1971 and a winery cobbled together from two red sheds. The contrast with those steel tanks at Union Wine Co. couldn’t have been starker.
“We will spend some time looking at what Amity is. How do we tell the story better? How do we freshen up the packaging?” Harms says to describe his strategy for the label. “I will be hands-on until we get our arms wrapped around what the brand is like. I tend to simplify things, so I’m thinking we will make less wine — fewer SKUs — and see what’s selling well and has a reason to be made.”
Harms isn’t a stranger to craft production; until this year he moonlighted as the winemaker for Hawks View Cellars and continues to vinify about 500 cases of wine annually for his parents, who own a small vineyard in California’s Sierra Foothills. In deference to Amity’s “Eco-Wine,” he’s in the process of having Union Wine Co. certified as an organic winemaking facility.
That’s because Amity will, for the near future, be produced at Union Wine Co. The era of Amity’s little red winery is over.
“I am not in a position to run it as a hobby,” Harms says of the Amity acquisition. “A winery has to be a business at a certain point.”
You can find Underwood pinot noir — and pinot gris — for approximately $6 per 375-ml can at New Seasons Markets beginning in June, and at additional local groceries thereafter.
Taste a nice pinot noir straight from the can