By Laura Ness
So, you think wine in cans is a slick joke? Think again. Maker Wine Company, co-founded by Stanford Business School classmates Sarah Hoffman and Kendra Kawala, is out to change minds, one sip at a time.
“Most wine in cans have been pretty disappointing for consumers,” admits Hoffman, who has a background in digital marketing, and previously was part of the pioneering team at EventBrite. “But that’s because the wine that was put into them was sub-par. Our business model is to put strictly premium wine in can: The same high wine that our winemakers would put into their own bottles.”
And, it shows. The Maker cans are gorgeous, and the wines, well, to this wine judge, are pretty freaking amazing. For one, thing, they are fresh and energetic and don’t taste like they came out of a can. That’s because when you put good stuff in the cans, you get good stuff out. That was borne out at the 2020 North Coast Wine Challenge, sponsored by The Press Democrat, where my panel judged several Maker wines in cans—a fact concealed from us. The 2019 Viognier by Campovida, scored a Double Gold and was awarded Best of Class, 96 points. Their Cabernet, made by Alice Sutro of Sutro Wines, scored 95 points at the New York International Wine Competition. They’re onto something.
Recently, I tasted the 2020 Maker Sparkling Sauvignon Blanc made by Chris Christensen of Bodkin Wines, and you would never know it came from a can. It’s sparkly, zesty, bright and refreshing. Just what you need on a warm Spring day. The 2019 version of this wine was awarded Gold and 90 points at the Sunset Wine Competition. Similarly, the 2020 Rosé of Grenache by Nicole Walsh of Ser, is brilliantly fruity and fresh. Again, no hint of can to get in the way. The perfect beach, hike, forest bathing or poolside refreshment. Recyclable and easily luggable.
Hoffman has a brave approach to wine competitions: She never enters the wines in the “canned wine category.” She lets them compete on their own merits, and the proof is in the results. “We’ve gotten at least a Gold out of every competition we’ve entered.” They’ve put their wines to the test at The Women’s Wine Competition and Sommelier Challenge, in addition to the SF Chronicle, Sunset, New York International and North Coast Wine Challenge.
So, how did the founders, Hoffman and Kawala, end up putting premium wine into 250ml cans? Neither had any experience with wine. They are both quick to point out they’re not trained somms, either: They just like good wine. Hoffman had a craft beer blog and ran an underground supper club in San Francisco, where she learned the value of making people feel connected to the product in a personal way. Kawala has a background in healthcare and problem-solving. As grad schoolmates, they became wine touring buddies, tasting and learning. Two things struck them. Says Hoffman, “We fell in love with all these small wineries! But their products weren’t available outside of their tasting rooms. We realized how tough it was for small producers to expand their brands. We loved their stories and wanted to share them and educate others about their wines.”
So captivated were they by the personalities of these winemakers, among them Chris Christensen of Bodkin wines, who made their first sparkling rose, they decided to create a business to share both the makers’ stories and juice.
“An important aspect of our business model is we wanted to focus on different grapes from different regions,” explains Hoffman. Most canned wines are Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc and red blends. We wanted to do something different. We thought about sparkling rosé and sparkling Sauv Blanc, Chenin Blanc, and a really good Cabernet. We have a Merlot coming out from Smith Devereux on April 1, and we’re putting Pinot Gris in cans from Handley Cellars, along with our second vintage of Pinot Noir with them.”
How did cans became their ideal delivery vehicle? “We did a lot of benchmarking,” says Hoffman. “We had a lot of canned wines while trying to decide if this delivery method was viable. What we discovered is that most cans contain lower quality wines. Most consumers are afraid of buying wine in soda cans, at $5 or $6. (Each can contains half a 750ml bottle). How great can a wine be at $10 or $12 a bottle? But each of our 250ml cans (1/3 of a bottle) is anywhere from $7 to $15/can. It’s quality stuff.”
They decided to take the risk, because they believed this would be the future. Their first release of canned wines was in 2019, which makes them look genius, given the outdoor mobile lifestyle subsequently encouraged by the pandemic. Still, though they anticipated pushback.
The beautifully designed Maker cans, each of which contains the story and signature of the winemaker, including tasting notes, are sold in six-packs, directly from the Maker website. They also have a small cadre of wholesale accounts in the Bay Area, including Berkeley Bowl, Epicurean Trader, Sigona’s, Roberts Market, Bacchus & Venus and Mill Valley Market. The Maker website provides a full current list.
Hoffman and Kawala also decided to create a unique wine club, and are recruiting Founding Members, who will not only receive a choice of 12 to 24 cans quarterly, but will also be invited to online tastings and “Meet the Makers” events. Rather than a customer service rep, they provide a wine concierge who is always ready to provide answers and make suggestions about which Maker product to try next.
Hoffman says the customer reaction has been incredible. “They’re telling us, ‘OMG that Rosé of Grenache is the best rosé I’ve ever had! I can’t believe it came from a can!’ We’re doing lots of corporate group tastings and team buildings where the attendees are trying our wines for the first time. You can see how skeptical they are! I just love seeing their reactions live when they take that first sip. Their expressions tell all. They’re so pleasantly surprised!”
The makers themselves are overwhelming positive about the experience as well: It provides a new avenue for exposing their brands to a new set of customers.
Bodkin’s Christensen says the hardest part of being in the wine business is selling the wine. He applauds Maker for their fresh eyes and refreshing approach, and the fact they can think outside the can. “Premium wine, with a direct-to-consumer model, celebrating diverse producers — who wouldn’t want to be part of that? I knew if they could sell me, they could sell wine. It was too exciting of an opportunity to pass up. Cans are a wide open frontier and are a natural companion for our new work-from-home, take-and-go society.”
He says Maker is charting a new course for cans. “The early entry was driven by marketing and the race-to-market. With Maker at the forefront leading the way in quality over quantity, it’s an exciting time to be at the forefront of the movement.
These are very much tier one wines, the best-of-the-best from top producers, not dregs or vintage overages.”
Winemaker Nicole Walsh of Ser Wines (and longtime winemaker at Bonny Doon Vineyards) says she met Kendra Kawala at Soif during a Meet the Young Winemakers of Santa Cruz event a couple of years ago. It didn’t take her long to say “Yes!” to the idea of partnering on a couple of wine in cans, including the 2020 Rosé of Grenache and the 2019 Cabernet Pfeffer, a spicy varietal she sources from the Wirz Vineyard in San Benito. “I have loved working with them on this and am excited by the positive feedback from customers and even local buyers. We do have a plan to do a Sparkling Riesling for 2021 and likely more Cab Pfeffer.” She sells the cans out of her Aptos tasting room, too: Perfect for a walk on the nearby beach.
How does the partnership work? The winemakers submit samples to the tasting panel of palates that Hoffman and Kawala have assembled and they choose their favorites. Then the wine is readied for canning day, when The Can Van shows up. Says Hoffman, “They procure all the cans we need. They are an awesome women-owned business as well.” The whole Maker crew shows up at each partner winery to help get the product into cans. While writing this, The Can Van team was canning a new Pinot Gris at Handley Cellars in the Anderson Valley.
Lulu Mclellan, daughter of Handley Cellars founder, the late Milla Handley (who passed of Covid in 2020), says she met the Maker team at the Slow Wine USA Tour tasting in 2019. “They had read about the Handley story in the event brochure and were intrigued about Handley as a second generation woman operated winery focused on ecological farming and food friendly wines. They tasted the wines and loved them.”
Longtime Handley Cellars winemaker, Randy Schock, had been a judge at the first International Canned Wine Festival started by Allan Green (former proprietor and winemaker at Greenwood Ridge in Philo), so he had a really good idea of which Handley Pinot lots would work well in a can. Says McClellan, “It’s been a fun, rewarding and inspiring project where both Maker and Handley are fulfilling a need for each other. It’s very synergistic. We have the wine and the history that they love and they have new and fresh marketing that is helping to get the Handley story (and wine) to a new audience. They are really story finders and storytellers.”
Handley’s McClellan is excited about the new Pinot Gris and the upcoming 2020 Pinot Noir with Maker, observing, “The cans have fit into the pandemic really well too: the small size encourages people at home to have a glass of when they might want to open a whole bottle, and Maker is skilled at digital marketing and connecting with their customers in this new normal world.”
Anna Beuselinck, co-founder of Campovida, producer of the 96-point Viognier, says, “We continue to partner with Maker because we all have a shared commitment to offering award-winning wines. Maker’s dedication to curating the best wines from smaller winemakers provides us all creative expansion and new customer exposure. We think this opportunity is the new math of 1+1=11, which allows us both to succeed.”
Hoffman says they are committed to helping their current Makers succeed. “We want to grow with our winery partners, and we hope they can allocate more juice to us. So many of our 2020 releases are already sold out. We are working hard to build a pipeline with the current winemakers, but we are also eagerly looking for more potential makers with interesting grapes and fascinating stories.”
They’re planning on adding an Albarino to the lineup soon, and are on the hunt to find the right Chardonnays for what she thinks will be a fun side-by-side tasting for club members. “I’m looking to nail two styles of Chardonnay, to show what California can do with this varietal. We’ve tasted lots of samples already, and we’re still looking.” Also on the wish list, Tempranillo and Zin.
Are you the potential maker with the right stuff? Can you wow them with a great story and tasty product? If so, you just might end up in and on a way cool can.