Small Business

Pinot noir in a can: Forget wine bottles, think six pack

Pinkies down and wrap your hand around a can of wine
Pinkies down and wrap your hand around a can of wine

An Oregon winery is trying a unique approach to packaging and selling wine: pinot noir in more humble, aluminium cans. Forget uncorking heavy bottles, pouring wine into clumsy goblets and swirling glasses to aerate the fancy stuff. Just pop open like a canned brew and enjoy. If you're feeling classy, reach for a glass.

The Union Wine Co. has created pinot in a can, which retails for around $6 each, and $24 for a four-pack, available on its website. The canned pinot noir is available in stores in eight U.S. markets, including New York-New Jersey, and the winery hopes to expand to 16 markets by next year.

"We're certainly focused on keeping it real and removing the pretense that surrounds wine," said Ryan Harms, owner and winemaker of the Union Wine Co. The winery is based in Tualatin, Oregon, roughly 30 minutes outside Portland. "While all that ceremony may be good and attract a group of consumers, it can be off-putting and can keep new consumers from entering the wine category."

Of course quality grapes and taste matter. But in an extremely crowded U.S. market of domestic and imported choices, packaging can help attract consumers' attention. There's already wine and spirits in pouches, which can be frozen. Wine experts and materials engineers devote entire conferences to wine packaging topics, such as sustainable packaging options.

Read MoreHow China is transforming the Bordeaux market

The U.S. wine industry alone has some 7,760 wineries. And about 90 percent of domestic wine volume is produced by the top 30 wineries, said Cyril Penn, editor of Wine Business Monthly. That means if you're a smaller producer, it's harder to get noticed and grow market share.

"There's so much competition," Penn said.

Canned pinot, will travel

Oregon-based Union Wine Company offers pinot noir in beer-like aluminum cans.
Source: David L. Reamer

The canned pinot idea has roots in the Pacific Northwest. A winery employee—a big outdoorsman—noted the challenges of lugging heavy wine bottles to remote locations. Employees pondered wine containers that could easily be transported to and from destinations. Even corralling and dumping empty wine bottles is a chore.

"The can was part of that brainstorming," Union Wine Co. owner Harms said.

Pinot in a can is technically about 12.7 ounces, a touch more than standard 12-ounce beer cans. That's because wine container sizes are strictly regulated.

The winery then selected a mobile bottling company to package the wine. A large truck arrives at the winery and lowers its equipment on to the cellar floor, Harms explained.

Taste and shelf life

Canned drinks do raise concerns about any possible, tinny taste. But Harms says his pinot is packaged in lined cans, which prevents aluminum from contacting the wine.

Union Wine Co. pinot noir and pinot gris also are young, fruit-heavy wines that lend themselves to canning, and are produced for everyday, accessible consumption—not necessarily hoarding the stuff in dusty cellars.

"I would expect the can wines to remain fresher and show less change from canning to consumption than wines closed in screw cap and certainly less than wines closed in cork," Harms said.

Union Wine's canned sales so far have exceeded expectations. But canned production is about 5 percent of the winery's total output, which has grown to about an estimated 122,000 cases for this year.

Canned pinot is available in stores in Rhode Island, Maryland-Washington D.C., Ohio, Illinois, California, Hawaii and Oregon.

The Oregon winery isn't the first to feature canned wine. The Francis Ford Coppola Winery, based in Geyserville, California, offers a single-serve "Sofia" wine in a slim can that's about 6.3 ounces. Barokes Wines, based in Australia, also offers canned wines.

Harms said his Oregon company liked the can idea and settled on a familiar ounce size. "We wanted something consumers were familiar with, something akin to a beer can," he added.

Courting younger consumers

Looking ahead, the Union Wine Co. and other producers are tinkering with packaging as they monitor the preferences of millennial consumers. The websites of more innovative wineries feature happy millennials, cycling on a beach. There are no images of old vineyards, or language referring to "terroir," or the distinctive characteristics of a particular vineyard.

Millennial consumption is a hot topic in wine circles. But it's unclear at this point if millennials ultimately will spend big bucks for vintages, or stick with affordable options.

Looking at the percentage of people who drink wine by age group, adults ages 25 to 34 accounted for 35 percent, according to 2013 data from the Beverage Information Group. That's lower than 36.6 percent for ages 45 to 54, and 41.6 percent for ages 55 to 64.

For now, Union Wine Co.'s big challenge is producing enough canned pinot. Said Harms, "(A) can for wine is this real interaction between form and function."

By CNBC's Heesun Wee. Follow her on Twitter @heesunwee.