Niebaum-Coppola Winery
Sofia blanc de blancs, made by Niebaum-Coppola Winery, will be packaged in individual-serving cans, with their own straws, and sold in four-packs.  The hope is to appeal to younger drinkers, especially clubgoers.
By Jon Bonné
msnbc.com
updated 6/2/2004 1:39:49 PM ET 2004-06-02T17:39:49

Honestly, it wasn't originally supposed to be in a can.

Niebaum-Coppola Winery, owned by film director Francis Ford Coppola, wanted to sell its Sofia blanc de blancs sparkling wine -- named for daughter and fellow director Sofia -- in a 187 ml serving, just big enough for one drinker's thirst and a neat way to enjoy sparkling wine without opening a full-size bottle. 

For years, Champagne and other sparkling wines have been served up in 187 ml bottles (about six ounces, or a quarter of a full bottle) known among wine types as splits. Coppola wanted to sell a split of Sofia, but couldn't find anyone to package it in small bottles with corks of the same quality as their full-sized offering, which has been bottled since at least 1999.

Other ideas weren't terribly appealing -- a bottle with a screwcap looked too much like those airline single-servings; not bad, but not the hip image the winery wanted for Sofia.  Then they contemplated the can.

"The more we kind of played with the idea, the more we warmed up to it," said Erle Martin, president of Niebaum-Coppola. "We realized we could make a can very cool and very elegant."

Since this spring, the winery has quietly shipped 5,000 cases of Sofia in a can. Rather than target the usual wine shops, it has been trying out the sleek pink cans at high-end nightclubs in cities like Miami, Las Vegas and San Francisco. 

The Sofia cans go national this month, and the winery expects to sell 50,000 cases this year, well beyond what it originally intended as a niche offering.

Part of the plan has been to market Sofia not merely as premium wine without a bottle but as a clubgoers' drink: ordered by name, easy to hold at a bar and ideal for resort poolsides where glass is a no-no.  Niebaum-Coppola's intention is to target drinkers of beer or alcopops, those fruity mixes like Smirnoff Ice that have supplanted wine coolers as the choice for sweet-palated drinkers.

The cans are meant to appeal to what Martin has described as a "Sex in the City" crowd: sophisticated female city-dwellers, from just over drinking age up to their mid-30s.  It's a different audience than most wine drinkers. 

Like many wineries, Niebaum-Coppola has been looking for ways to attract younger drinkers who may still have a beer-and-shots preference left over from their college days, or those who have gravitated to punchy drinks like vodka with Red Bull.  Initial marketing was word-of-mouth, Martin said, but the national release will include print ads in buzz-generating magazines like Paper and Surface.

Thus the can is upscale but not snooty: almost a fashion accessory, and an excellent sell to twentysomethings hoping to look a bit more grown-up and refined without being seen as stodgy wine drinkers like, say, their parents. The winery wants a small, loyal following that appreciates sparkling wine as an affordable treat more often than once a year.

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"I think this product has really got an opportunity to cross over," Martin said.

It may be a good time to be experimenting.  Sparkling offerings have become increasingly popular in clubs, both for their taste and as a status symbol. Two French Champagne makers -- Piper-Heidsieck and Pommery -- already market splits of their non-vintage wines for clubs. 

Still, most sparkling wine is served in full 750 ml bottles and younger drinkers with lean pocketbooks aren't about to adorn their table with a bottle of Cristal or Veuve Cliquot.

"They don't feel they can finish the bottle in one sitting and don't realize they can buy a stopper to seal in the bubbles," said Berit Holms of MKF, a wine industry consulting firm. "The smaller single serve packages can serve to take some of the intimidation out of the category."

Sofia will be the same in cans and full bottles, so fans can switch up. Unlike the drier French offerings, Coppola's wine is blended from the drier pinot blanc and sauvignon blanc grapes as well as 8 percent muscat, which gives it subtle, sweet overtones that may sit more comfortably on the palates of its target audience.

Cans will retail at $20 for a four-pack. Clubgoers can expect to pay $6 to $10 a pop. Matching straw included.

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