Cans with a Plan

Photo credit: Djuce

Djuce first entered my periphery late last year at the New York City iteration of Karakterre’s natural wine fair. Amid a cheerful invasion of producers from what has winningly been dubbed “the Austro-Hipsterian Empire,” I narrowed my focus to taste at some touchstones of Austrian natural wine — Judith BeckJohannes ZillingerHeinrichMeinklangNittnausWeninger. Hurrying between offerings of electric-amped Grüner Veltliner and ethereal Blaufränkisch, I brushed by a small table stacked with slim, colorful cans and a paper sign that read “Djuce.” 

I paused just long enough to register an internal eye roll at what I assumed was
the bro-culture spelling and reflexive ecoism of yet another alt-packager that had somehow bought its way into the event. 

But a month later, when a smartly boxed sample set of those very cans landed at my doorstep, I checked my prejudices. It turns out I had ignored what may have been the coolest, most compelling idea at a fair defined by cool compulsion. What’s more, some of the very same producers’ wines I had been hunting that November afternoon were quietly waiting in Djuce’s cans all along.

Canned wine is nothing new. The approach taken by Djuce, an international wine project based in Sweden, is. By combing organic and biodynamic growers from across Europe with edgy visual artists from around the world and light carbon footprint packaging, the company hopes to push high-quality, low-intervention wines to new audiences. 

The idea of putting wine in playfully provocative contexts comes from Swedish ad executive Philip Marthinsen and his friends and business partners, David Dworsky and Victor Köhler. All three cherish the values and rituals around food and wine. But by 2020, they felt that the wine industry had, as Marthinsen puts it, “created a world and expected people to come to it, with a high threshold to feeling at home there,” rather than the other way around. Frustrated and curious, they began exploring ways in which they might change the encounters their millennial peers and the generation below theirs could have with wine.  

The trio brought on sommelier and importer Pontus Lindqvist. In part on the strength of his reputation as a market-builder for eastern European wines in Scandinavia, he was able to convince high-profile growers who might otherwise be a little too canonical to consider an alt-packaged product of their own to sign on with Djuce.

Photo credit: Djuce

Since launching the brand last year, Djuce has built up an evolving roster of 15 growers, with a core crew in Austria and Germany (see Tasting Notes). Marthinsen understands that “not all producers want their wines in all types of markets and contexts.” But he’s even clearer on why most responded positively to partnering with Djuce: “First, they are farmers. They see the negative impact climate change has on winegrowing and feel a responsibility to do their part to change that. Second, they see that, as an industry, wine has changed. The producers, as business people, all understand that we need to think in new ways to become relevant to a new generation of drinkers.” Marthinsen and his team are also testing an idea that likely appeals as well: “Can we push a premiumness to cans, where you can actually sell wine on a level where you can source it responsibly?” 

Canned wine is the juggernaut in an otherwise challenged industry. According to Straits Research, the global canned wine market was valued at US$241.50 million in 2021 and is projected to nearly triple by 2030. The U.S. is the largest market, Europe the fastest growing. While momentum is largely driven by the retail, travel, and events sectors, the quality focus of projects like Djuce make it easier to envision cans landing on sophisticaated bar counters and restaurant tables, too. In markets like L.A, Stockholm, or New York’s Hudson Valley, Djuce’s cans are already taking their tiny stands against conspicuous resource consumption. “Eventually, a lot of places that want to drive sustainability and position themselves will replace bottles with cans as a statement,” Marthinsen believes.

The drawbacks of cans for wine are clear to, well, anyone who’s tasted most canned wines. The problem has been that this packaging option requires special considerations bulk wine producers, which account for the majority of canned wines on the market, don’t bother to meet. These include ensuring wines have levels of sulfur less than 80mg/L total, free sulphur less than 20mg/L, pH above 3.2, and alcohol of less than 13.5%, Marthinsen explains. An ultra-thin plastic lining creates a barrier between wine and can, but the lining, which degrades over time, limits shelf life to 18 months, setting another parameter for the wines selected.

Taking a page from Jony Ive, the industrial designer whose early Apple designs were “unapologetically plastic,” Djuce leans into aluminum. “People dislike the can, so we put the can first and foremost. They dislike that it’s aluminum. Let’s celebrate that!” says Marthinsen impishly. 

The metal’s feather weight, ready recyclability, and affordability vis-a-vis glass — the cost and shortages of which have been a major drain on producers’ budgets over the past three years — are worthy of celebration.

Lightness is a chief virtue. Cutting down on the carbon costs of transporting wine by lessening container weight is the obvious win. Lightening the load of wine destined for picnics or hikes is a sweet byproduct.

While aluminum is costly to mine and refine, it is cheap and efficient to recycle, with 75% kept in circulation. (Marthinsen notes that the level of recycled aluminum in Djuce cans is just under 60%.) Producing three 250-ml aluminum cans instead of one traditional 750-ml wine bottle reduces total carbon ⁣emissions by 79%, according to Sweden’s progressive wine monopoly Systembolaget. Their figures indicate that a standard-weight glass wine bottle results in the release of 660 grams of CO2 for each liter of wine it contains. The cans Djuce uses release 141 grams of CO2 per liter. Last year Djuce produced 200,000 cans. This year they’re on track to quadruple that. Even the quickest mental calculation proves Djuce’s carbon-reducing impact is already significant. 

Glass bottle shortages may have eased from their pandemic-induced peak, but for European producers prices are still up 25% over where they were at the start of 2020. With supplies limited by the ongoing war in Ukraine and persistent elevated costs for the fuels to manufacture and transport glass, it’s unclear when this situation will improve.

Djuce is splashing these cans with impactful art. Carolina Moscoso, a Portuguese architect, designer, and graphic artist based in Brooklyn, designed the hedonic label for the “Kontext” cans, which contain a skin-fermented white from biodynamic Burgenland producer Meinklang. “When Philip and Pontus emailed me, it was the very first time I had seen wine in cans,” she notes. But she was drawn to Djuce’s respect for artists — who are featured by name on the cans just as the producers are, not subsumed into an anonymous corporate design — and to the project’s reach. “When a product like this can travel to people, rather than them having to come into a gallery to see your work, it’s definitely a good thing,” she says. The impermanence of a canvas meant to be repurposes “is something to be embraced as part of the life of the object.” By giving artists a way to expand their visibility in non-traditional spaces “some now have ‘editions’ of 15,000 or 20,000 ‘prints’ — but on a can, not paper,” Marthinsen says. “We joke that we’re building the world’s largest physical art gallery. Of course, many of them will be recycled.” 

Naturally, the Swedish company embraces the flatpack. Djuces shipping boxes are designed to show off their canned contents like vest pocket galleries. Building on the light weight, strength, and configurability of aluminum and cardboard, the equivalent of a standard bottle or even a magnum can also be slipped unobtrusively under an arm or into a backpack, a compelling feature in the wine-to-go world. 

Photo credit: Djuce

Djuce’s artistic focus was part of its appeal to Gernot Heinrich, of Burgenland’s biodynamic Weingut Heinrich, which makes two wines for the Djuce portfolio. “It definitely had a positive influence on our decision to participate,” he says, “even though we had quite heated discussions within the family at the beginning, especially about the very controversial ‘BLANK’ label. But wine, like art, is an individual form of expression and appeals to people with an affinity for it in an equally individual way.”

His concerns were focused more on preserving quality. “Of course, it’s always a queasy feeling when you hand over the final production step,” Heinrich admits. “But our wines are reasonably stable due to their lively acidity and lees content, which further protects them.” Beyond this, Djuce’s process for getting the wines from cellar to canner is streamlined for minimal disturbance. Djuce sends large, empty vacuum bags to the producer, who fills them. Djuce then arranges for the bags to be refrigerator-shipped to the canning facility it works with in Barcelona. The cans then ship out from warehouses in Spain to various markets across Europe and North America. (No figures were available on the carbon costs of these steps.)

“When you are used to doing everything yourself and to supervising every step of the process, it is of course a bit strange at first when the wines are packaged in another country without our presence,” explains Andreas Nittnaus, the younger generation at the biodynamic Burgenland estate Weingut Anita & Hans Nittnaus, which also has a wine in the Djuce line-up. “But we work on a basis of trust to ensure the quality and the idea through constant exchange. The sustainable, resource-saving aspect appealed to us very much, as did the fun-loving, uncomplicated nature conveyed by the can.” 

Some of the wines Djuce offers are identical to the bottled versions producers have on the market. But others, like, Heinrich’s “Naked White,” a popular Welschriesling/Pinot Blanc/Grüner Veltliner blend, draws from several individual barrels, while Djuce’s version, called “BLANK,” is drawn from a single barrel that stood out to Pontus Lindqvist on a tasting visit and which he requested specifically for Djuce. 

Canned wines of Djuce’s caliber fit neatly into mindful, flexible consumption culture, especially as drinkers increasingly support responsible farming and production processes, look for ways to creatively bridge the lo/no divide, embrace damp drinking, mix and match beverages over the course of a meal, reach for wine at night clubs and festivals, and recognize the virtues of built-in portion control when the can is split among a few drinkers. “With a can, there’s a physical barrier to mindlessly drinking more,” Marthinsen points out. “You have to make a more conscious decision before opening the next one.” There’s also what he calls the “Tuesday night effect”: When a low-key night at home would be made that much better by a good glass of wine, cracking open a 250-ml can — exactly one-third the size of a standard bottle — may lower the commitment bar.

Assuming a good number of us will carry on drinking wine, and wine made in places hundreds even thousands of miles from home at that, it’s clear we need to do it differently. Djuce offers another way we, well … can.

Tasting Notes

Rosa 2021 Meinklang Burgenland, Austria

I road-tested this one to simulate how it might hold up on a picnic or hike, tasting it closer to ambient backpack temperature. The fizz felt a bit forced, but flavors of mint and cherry came through bright, poppy, and fresh. 

Kontext Orange 2021 Meinklang Burgenland, Austria

This skin-fermented Welschriesling/Pinot Gris/Grüner Veltliner delivers snappy strawberry, orange zest, and caraway seed over a faintly resinous back tone. Tannins offer welcome dimension. Salty and lip-smacking with surprising length! 

Juicy Red 2021 Nittnaus Burgenland, Austria

Served with a slight chill, this wine bursts with lively dark fruit, savory, earthy undertones, and plenty of acid zip. A blend of Sankt Laurent and Blaufränkisch in which the St. L. comes through with signature savory notes. A vivid, complex soif.

BLANK 2021 Weingut Heinrich Burgenland, Austria 

All the singing, signature freshness and savory complexity you expect from Heinrich. Lemongrass, kumquat, coriander seed, and a wave of salty umami ride a beam of acid. The Welschriesling/Weißburgunder/Grüner Veltliner blend has a weight, texture, and energy that are as well aligned to winter drinking as to making a perfect poolside tonic.

Zweigelt 2019 Weingut Heinrich Burgenland, Austria

Oh, Zweigelt, you crafty shape-shifter! Here you are slender, taut, sinewy. Your fruit is brambly, snapped to life with a sprinkling of herbs. A worthy red pendant to BLANK.

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