Making wine in a box premium

Stel + Mar is trying to shed the baggage of cans and Tetra Paks to reach millennials who want quality and convenience.

Sheep Black Wine Inc--Modern winery Sheep Black Wine launches st

New wine formats have always had an image problem: plastic corks, screw tops, cheap plonk wine that comes in a box – but Sheep Black Wine thinks Canadians are ready to move past that.

Stel + Mar (“stel and mar”) is the first line by Sheep Black Wine, a winery with a mandate to “disrupt the old and often stagnant wine market.” Stel + Mar is launching California wine packaged in single-serve 250 ml cans and 500 ml Tetra Pak boxes. In June, the winery’s premium rosé will also come in a box of six Tetra Paks, and plans to launch Zinfandel, Chardonnay and sparkling varities.

Its Toronto born-and-raised founders Chris Noll and Justin Dumitrescu are emphasizing that a quality wine can come in a can and Tetra Paks, saying that millennial drinkers in particular want convenience, but not at the expense of quality.

“[Wine is] a bit of an old, stagnant industry with no innovation for centuries,” Dumitrescu says. “In the U.S., this is changing via different packaging formats. We saw that and got excited about being the first producer in Canada [but] there wasn’t anything premium, so Chris and I got an idea to put good wine in cans, something we saw was coming globally.”

Canned wine debuted back in 2003 when Godfather director Francis Ford Coppola’s winery began offering sparkling white in a 187 ml can, with small straws attached, but the format failed to take off. While the brand concedes that Tetra Paks for wine have also been around for a long time, according to Noll, they tend to be lower quality and mass produced. Dumitrescu says that when a new packaging innovation enters wine, history shows that it is usually to save money, and normally associated with lower quality offerings.

“Synthetic cork was first done with cheaper products. Same with twist off,” he says. “When given enough time, good wine eventually gravitates to it. We are seeing that in canned wine.”

Now, however, according to Nielsen data stateside, off-premise canned wine sales for the one-year period ending in June 2019 rose 69% from the year before, leading several leading business media publications like Forbes to wonder if it was the next big thing.

Sheep Black Wine Inc--Modern winery Sheep Black Wine launches st

Recent double-blind studies may have contributed to the uptick in canned wine popularity, as canned versus bottle taste tests have shown comparable results. Big wineries like Arterra and Gallo are now entering the canned fray. “It’s a confidence builder for us,” Noll adds. “If they are stepping in with big marketing budgets we will continue to see [category] growth.”

According to Dumitrescu, he and Noll were intrigued by growth in that format, but Ontario legislation limits brand to formats over one litre plus, like bag-in-box. Wine contained in a plastic bladder – typically with an air-tight valve and protective corrugated box – has seen its market share double in the past four years, according to Information Resources data. The LCBO granted Stel + Mar a listing of six 500 ml Tetra Paks, a total of three litres.

One of the major benefits of cans and boxes is that they can be taken anywhere, and these formats can go where traditional bottled wine can’t. They also offered more variety in terms of consumption quantity and occasions. “People often open up a bottle of wine and either end up wasting some of it or feel obligated to drink more than they wanted,” Noll says. Cans offer a more modest serving size, and the Tetrapak can be resealed, and both are also significantly lighter and more efficient to ship.

On LCBO shelves, Stel + Mar wines will live at the counter in the impulse buy area and also be in fridge and end-aisle. Due to COVID-19, Sheep Black is sending out direct samples, doing virtual tastings and putting more into social and influencer campaigns.

Dumitrescu says as a new winery, it’s not burdened by the design clichés that buyers have come to associate with old world vintners: the donkeys, the dusty chateaus and the vines. Stel + Mar uses a geometrical, modernist design that will pop for the many consumers that make purchasing decisions on branding and design alone. “Traditional wine? We want to be the opposite of that,” Dumitrescu says.

One of the motivations behind the design was also to be gender neutral. “Unlike a lot of brands, which have a direct target market, with the large wine market cap, lots of drinking goes on and we can stretch our target quite deep because of this format,” Dumitrescu says. He adds that Sheep Black Wine takes learnings from beers, especially microbrews, which saw a wellspring of design creativity during their rise (Noll co-founded Brickworks Cider, which also helped him navigate the world of liquor boards and getting products listed).

The brand is eager to see sporting events come back, but according to Noll, concerts, arenas and movie theatres, are all looking to find creative ways to bring wine to events that’s easier than pouring the product into a plastic cup. But it is Ontario’s 800 golf courses where the brand sees a lot of promise, having targeted each one with promotional packages for golf carts. Noll says this includes wrapping golf carts with the Stel+Mar branding and making sure the wine is on carts. “We want to be know that a now a really really good California wine can be enjoyed on the golf course, juts like a beer.”