Driving through an unknown-to-me patchwork of terrain in the Russian River Valley, protected from the pebbly hail and biting wind, my colleague and I eventually arrive at a low-slung yellow house abutted by demarcated small vineyard plots and a penned-off piece of land occupied by a menagerie of chickens, goats, and mini-Sicilian donkeys. The story of Two Shepherds winery, the natural wine brainchild of William Allen and Karen Daenen, partners in life and wine, begins here: with the earth, the farm, the animals, and a mixture of Rhône varieties that Allen has been working with for years, along with some esoteric varieties sourced from key vineyards across California. The winery has made waves within the greater wine industry, with the San Francisco Chronicle naming Two Shepherds’ Grenache Blanc as one of the five best in California.
But a more recent development at Two Shepherds is catching on with younger consumers who pay attention not only to taste and alcohol intake, but also environmental impact: canned wine.
“The can is just a vessel, but it is more recyclable than glass,” Allen says to us inside the house, pointing to Bucking Luna – named after one of their donkeys – a low-alcohol (11.5% ABV) sparkling Cinsault and Carignan blend that Two Shepherds sells in 250 ml cans. “We wanted to release sparkling wine, but to do so in bottles was astronomical in both cost and weight. So we opted for cans.” Two Shepherds’ bubble program began with this revelation, and Allen sources the aluminum from a manufacturer in the San Francisco Bay Area. “Nothing comes from overseas. And shipping cans is way cheaper and much lighter than shipping bottles.”
According to a recently released report on the canned wine market younger generations, including Millennials and their younger counterpart, Generation Z, are expected to help increase sales of canned wine through 2027, with these consumers reaching for beverages lower in alcohol and whose creation and delivery to them reflect a lower carbon footprint. The younger generations of legal drinking age also look to beverages made with interesting components, such as organic ingredients and exotic spices, and for products that don’t break the bank. Daenen, also a consumer research expert at a multi-brand winery, adds that “Millennials and Gen Z’ers focus on style, taste, description, and what you’re doing from an environmental and social perspective. They don’t care as much about provenance, appellation, or grape varietal.”
The move to cans allows for easier portability for both distributors and consumers (it fits easily into a backpack or even a pocket) and a lighter carbon footprint. But Allen doesn’t can everything, and has encountered expectations from natural wine connoisseurs when it comes to glass bottles. Although there is no legal definition of ‘natural wine,’ consumers looking for it expect the packaging to appear a certain way, namely clear glass bottles.
“It is difficult to make glass clear,” Allen states. “And, clear glass is not recyclable in all states.” Also problematic for clear glass is light. Once the sun hits a bottle of wine in clear glass, it can easily penetrate through to the juice. “It takes 24 hours of UV exposure to irrevocably change a bottle of wine,” notes Allen.
While deciding in which type and color of glass bottle to put wine has become controversial for both producers and consumers, so too has canning wine.
“Most wine in cans suck,” Allen is not shy in saying. “The base product is horrible, and it smells like rotten eggs because they use too much sulfur.” Because of this, canned wine often has a reputation for poor quality. However, many larger producers, such as Union Wine Company, which produces the ubiquitous Underwood canned wine in still and sparkling, and Heineken, who recently introduced a sparkling wine made with honey and real sugar, have leveraged their considerable resources to improve quality control for wine packaged in aluminum cans. Although canned wine seems to have a long way to go in terms of adequate inclusion within the global wine pantheon, Allen points out that box wine and screw caps endured the same derision before becoming a settled part of the wine world, with many good producers putting good product into and under both systems.
“This all started in a garage,” Allen explains over lunch at a nearby pizzeria, referring to his “garagiste” days working with Darek Trowbridge at Old World Winery. “I didn’t plan on creating a brand, and never thought I would be canning wine.” In those early days Allen focused on making wine from just one grape – Grenache Blanc – with his efforts topping at a few hundred cases his first year. He added more Rhône varieties to his repertoire, expanding to 1,500 cases where he stayed for several years. He met and partnered with Karen in 2013, and, two years later, moved to the winery’s current facilities in a small industrial park in Windsor, California, with other wineries and a cidery for neighbors. Today, Two Shepherds makes 5,000 cases a year, still focusing on 25-400-case small lots.
At our post-lunch visit to the winery, we see rows of neutral barrels stretching to the ceiling, festooned with varietal names such as Picpoul Blanc, Carignan, Cinsault, Grenache Gris, Pinot Gris, and Trousseau Gris. (Allen confesses that he loves gray grapes.) As we walk around the concrete winery room trying to keep up with the frenetic winemaker, assistant winemaker Katie Nielsen tops off barrels at the back of the space. “Since day one we have used native yeast, neutral barrel fermentation, and aging. Everything is unfined and unfiltered,” Allen says, cementing Two Shepherds’ natural wine bone fides.
On the wall I spot a blown-up label of Bucking Luna proudly overlooking the winery, and next to it the label for Maxilla, Two Shepherds’ sparkling piquette named for their beloved lady cat, Max. The piquette sits at just 7.5% ABV and is an easy-drinking canned sparkler made from Trimble-Vineyard-sourced Carignan and carbonic Carignan (from where its lovely spritz comes.) Allen also makes another sparkler that he cans called Natty Pets, a sparkling white blend made from lots of Picpoul and some Grenache Blanc, a portion of it under skin fermentation. “The Natty Pets will be more orange,” Allen says, referring to future iterations of the wine and his penchant for skin fermentation, a process he also uses for his Pinot Gris, Grenache Gris, and Trousseau Gris, the latter sourced from Fanucchi Vineyard just down the road from his and Karen’s home and vineyards.
Two Shepherds is one of the small players in the huge field of wine, and has a more difficult time scaling to match market share of the larger players in the rapidly growing canned wine market. But, as products inevitably settle into a languid sameness, Allen will continue to buck the trends, experimenting with carbonics, replacing grapes (Counoise will replace Mourvèdre, for instance), and ultimately making wine that he likes to drink.
“Every year we do something different. There is something to be said for that.”