Canned wine trend is coming to Australia, says Tom O’Donnell of Riot Wine Co: Season Three, Episode Five

Wine podcast featuring Tom O'Donnell of kegged and canned wine company Riot Wine Co

Wine packaging is getting a revamp, thanks to Tom O’Donnell of Riot Wine Co, who joins us in this wine podcast episode of Drinks Adventures.

In 2016, O’Donnell co-founded the Adelaide, Australia-based company Riot, which releases its wines exclusively in cans and in kegs.

Updated 16/9/19: Riot Wine Co acquired by Carlton & United Breweries

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Riot wines have been pouring on tap at bars and restaurants across Australia since 2017, which the Riot founders claim has a range of benefits, starting with the environmental impact – the lifetime of just one keg can replace 23,000 bottles.

Riot also hopes to educate Australians on the benefits of canned wine, which is a rapidly growing market segment overseas.

Tom O'Donnell of kegged and canned wine company Riot Wine Co
Tom O’Donnell of kegged and canned wine company Riot Wine Co

I caught up with Tom at The Cannery, Riot’s new Adelaide tasting room.

Follow James Atkinson on Facebook here, Instagram here and Twitter here.

Theme music ‘Sandbox’ by Rudists.

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Canned wine trend is coming to Australia, says Tom O’Donnell of Riot Wine Co: Full Wine Podcast Transcript

JAMES ATKINSON: Tom O’Donnell, thanks so much for joining me on the Drinks Adventures podcast.

TOM O’DONNELL: No, problems, James. Thanks for having me.

JAMES ATKINSON: How did you get involved with the Riot guys?

TOM O’DONNELL: It’s two good friends of mine. So, long story short, myself, Adam Trippe-Smith, and Joe Cook set up Riot in 2016. Adam was a good friend of mine and in the booze game, or wine and beer game, if you like. So, I historically was a winemaker in McLaren Vale. When he was in a previous role in his previous life, he was in beer. I was in wine. We traded a lot of drinks, and sort of had an idea that down the track we’d do something together. And, in 2015, I actually traveled to the U.S., and was sort of amazed. It was just a recreational holiday essentially, but I was amazed to see the scale and the amount of different wineries doing wine on tap.

TOM O’DONNELL: It was the first time I’d been exposed to anything that was worthwhile drinking, and that was actually half reasonable. At the same time, my two business partners, Adam and Joe, had spent quite a bit of time in the U.S., and had obviously through their keg backgrounds had seen it sort of take off as a wine on tap movement in the U.S. And, we sort of got together and started putting a business case together and saying, “All right, how come they’re making good wine and quality wine in the U.S., and we’re not seeing any of that here?”

TOM O’DONNELL: So, definitely thought there was a hole in the market to bring awesome quality sort of fun, fast, fresh styles of wine here in the Australian market where it’s pretty conducive to drinking these styles of wine.

JAMES ATKINSON: How much has wine on tap penetrated the market in the U.S.?

TOM O’DONNELL: It’s massive. So, wine on tap and wine in can, as a category, have been the fastest moving, or fastest growing categories of wine the last three years in the States. You’ve got to remember it’s starting from a loyal base, so that’s probably why the numbers are slightly skewed [inaudible 00:01:35] its massive growth. Essentially, there’s a lot of synergies between the two. Canned sort of directly relate to wine on tap, and wine on tap directly relates to canned, as far as packaging and quality in the styles of wine that we’re making. So, it’s been a massive growth curve over the last few years for the U.S.

TOM O’DONNELL: It’s a little bit newer here in Australia. We were sort of one of the first guys. We’re the only people to start solely making wine on tap. So, we weren’t a bottled one producer that got into the tap business. We said, “If we’re going to do this, we’ll start with the end in mind and make it properly.”

JAMES ATKINSON: What were the barriers to rolling out wine on tap in Australia? Was there sort of a reluctance from venues?

TOM O’DONNELL: Totally, I mean there was a couple. There was practical barriers in wine making, and packaging, and finding the right solutions. And, then there was consumer barriers. So, we effectively had two consumers from the beginning. One was convincing a venue to pour our wines, and then secondly the venue convincing their customers to actually drink the wine. So, we were up against it from the beginning being one of the first, and not to mention the only guys doing solely wine on tap.

TOM O’DONNELL: So, to get the packaging right, I actually went back to the U.S. very early in Riot’s existence to spend a bit of time with a company in the U.S. that keg and can 85% of all kegged and canned wine in the U.S., and they were incredibly free with their knowledge.

TOM O’DONNELL: They’d obviously been part of the mass growth curve in the U.S., and they were well aware that it wasn’t really a category, or it wasn’t a category at all in Australia. So, they were incredibly open and free with me with their learnings, their knowledges, where they’d gone wrong previously, et cetera. And, my biggest takeaway for a wine making or a packaging point of view was, as I mentioned earlier, starting with the end in mind.

TOM O’DONNELL: So, not just making wine and putting some in bottle, putting some in can, putting some in tap, and sort of hoping that it all works. They’re very different vessels that you store in. So, chemically the wine is slightly different, and it reacts differently over time. So, starting with the end in mind was my biggest takeaway, and also just seeing the canning line operational, understanding different dissolved gasses, understanding preservative levels, understanding different ways they sort of manipulate the wine making process.

TOM O’DONNELL: They haven’t changed the wine making process altogether, they’ve just manipulated it to suit the end outcome. We obviously brought that back here and worked with our external packages at the time, so that we could formulate the right process for Riot. There was two different ways you could go at the time. One was using plastic kegs, and one was using stainless steel. Plastic is an awesome solution for beer. Unfortunately, it’s not a great solution for wine, so we couldn’t guarantee the freshness of the wine or the longevity of the wine. One thing before starting Riot that I had seen was you could go to two different venues, essentially taste wine on tap, and you could see a difference between the product. Or, you could taste that same wine in bottle, and then taste it on tap, and it would taste differently. From the get go we thought if it wasn’t as good as it could be in bottle, then why do it in the first place? So, we did go down the stainless steel path for quality reasons.

TOM O’DONNELL: Secondly, on the consumer level, as I mentioned, the first ever venue we had was the Cricketers Arms Hotel in Balmain, which was pouring a keg of Rosé. I think we delivered it in the back of the car. Thought, “All right, we’ll see how this go, and how long it takes.” And, a week later they called back and said, “We need another keg of Rosé.” So, that’s sort of 66 bottles. That’s quite a lot of wine to go through, so it gave us a little bit of confidence that we would have something or that we were onto something. It’s been a challenge in the first few years in getting it up and running, and just purely on the educational level, educating people in a fairly conservative market that it’s okay to try something new. It is okay to try something different.

TOM O’DONNELL: It sort of reminds me of the craft beer trend probably 10 or 12 years ago, you know when a Little Creatures were the first coming out. There was a mass education to why drink something else, and why try something else.

JAMES ATKINSON: What are the products that you’ve got in the portfolio currently?

TOM O’DONNELL: So, we’ve expanded a little. We launched with Rosé in 2016. We thought we’d test the markets and see how we’d go with Rosé. Still to this day, it’s our hero. So, 50% of Riot’s business is Rosé across both keg and can, or keg and pack. So, it’s a significant part of what we do. I’m a bit of a Grenache freak. I mentioned before, I grew up in McLaren Vale. So, our Rosé is a majority Grenache, and in 2019, it’s 100% Grenache. But, having said that, Grenache is a bit of a chameleon, and you can definitely make different styles of wine.

TOM O’DONNELL: So, we actually make a straight table wine, or red wine from McLaren Vale, that’s Grenache again. I have a Sauvignon Blanc in the range, and a sparkling Chardonnay. They’re the four that are in can. This year we’ve sort of expanded and made some other wines. So, I’ve got a Pinot G, which is sort of a hybrid between a Pinot Grigio and a Pinot Gris, and also a Riesling. Again, I mentioned I’m a Grenache freak when it comes to red wine. I’m a bit of a Riesling freak when it comes to white. So, they’re all in that kind of fun, fast, fresh, accessible, sort of easy drinking style of wine, not these big heavy, oaky, dense wines, which is why you won’t see us making it a Cabernet Sauvignon, or anything like that.

JAMES ATKINSON: It’s interesting you say the Rosé is the biggest seller. I was at a Treasury Wine Estates event earlier this year, and they were talking about the success of their Squealing Pig in a can. And, they were saying that their research says that consumers expect that if wine is coming in a can it should be sparkling. And, that’s obviously not been the experience that Riot’s had so far.

TOM O’DONNELL: I don’t think it’s just wine in a can that consumers expect to be sparkling. I think it’s beverage in a can. If you see a can on the shelf, you expect it to be a beer, or a sparkling water, or something along those lines. So, much like the wine on tap, when we started with an education into drinking in a different format, we are doing the exact same thing with wine on can. So, I was fairly adamant from the beginning that with the wines that we’re going to put out, we were going to put out wines that were actual wine, so they weren’t hybrids, or spritzers, or essentially wines that they weren’t intended to be. So, when we first looked at packaging our Rosé in can, again, we launched with Rosé. We actually looked at doing a sparkling Rosé, saying, “You know, it was a lot easier to do a sparkling Rosé than it was to put our sort of true wine in a can, if you like.”

TOM O’DONNELL: So, we did look at it, and we sort of stuck to our guns and said, “We’re here to make some serious wines, so let’s actually put them out the way that they’re intended to be drunk.” So, it took us an extra six months to get ready and to figure out how to package our first cans. But, we got there, and I’ve only got one sparkling wine in the range, which is, as I mentioned, it’s a sparkling Chard. So, it’s definitely intended to be that way, but no, we were pretty adamant that we wanted some serious but easy drinking table wines to represent Riot. It’s the same ones that we put on tap. It’s the same ones that we wanted in can.

JAMES ATKINSON: So, what sort of quality level are you aiming to hit with these wines? You know, if I was to go and try and buy a wine of similar quality in a bottle shop, what would I be spending for a bottle, do you reckon?

TOM O’DONNELL: Because it’s early days in the category, we definitely want people to get bang for buck. So, anyone that opens a can, I want them to think, “Wow, that was good value for money.” So, you tend to see our cans sell in a four pack, 250 mil cans. A four pack of those will be around $28. So, you’re sort of talking around the 22 to 24 dollar mark, sort of depending on the wine on shelf that it directly equates to. But, I’d like to think we’re making 25 to 30 dollar equivalent 750 mil bottle standard in quality wines. So, we’re definitely fighting up there in the quality spectrum. It’s not the cheapest wine on the market. But, as I say, hopefully it’s good bang for buck, and you think it fits between that 25 to 30 dollar bottle mark as an equivalent.

JAMES ATKINSON: You’ve talked about how you make your wine with the end package in mind. What are the advantages for the drinker?

TOM O’DONNELL: So, there’s two elements there. So, I’ll start with tap first. With taps we save 66 bottles going into landfill. With cans, aluminium is infinitely recyclable, et cetera, et cetera. One of the biggest benefits for a punter or a consumer, if you like though, is avoiding any light strike or oxidation. So, essentially there’s no… You think about an aluminium can or a stainless steel keg, there’s zero light and zero oxygen that gets in there. And, we actually push the wine out with an inert gas. We use nitrogen, so that we don’t carbonate the wines.

TOM O’DONNELL: In that process, we’re not having to preserve the wine against oxidation essentially. So, there’s three things that can destroy wine, much like a lot of other beverage. It’s light. It’s oxygen, and it’s temperature. So, we eliminate two of those automatically, and we temperature control all of our cans, eliminating the third.

TOM O’DONNELL: So, in theory there we use, or in practice I should say, we use much lower sulphur content. So, we sit at about a third of what a standard traditional bottled wine would be, with the amount of preservatives that we add into it. It’s the only additive that we put in any of our wines at all. So, it’s 100% grape juice converted into wine. We do use a tiny amount of sulphur. It’s simply literally just to preserve the flavor. But, as I said, it’s not preventing oxidation or ageability. So, it sits at about a third of what a traditional bottle of wine would.

TOM O’DONNELL: Secondly, I’ve got a really savoury pallet, so it definitely shows in all of our wines. So, all of our wines are less than one gram per litre of sugar. A dry wine is classified as anything less than seven, so effectively you can drink something that doesn’t have anywhere near the amount of preservatives in it. It definitely doesn’t have the sugar in it. And, we definitely err on the side of caution when it comes to alcohol content, et cetera, mainly to to be these easy style drinking wines. We’re not making these big bombastic, heavy oaky, high alcohol wines. They’re low alcohol, easy drinking, fun, fast, fresh wines.

JAMES ATKINSON: Given you guys are making generally lighter, fresher styles of wines, does that mean that you are not quite as hit by the vintage as perhaps some other wineries would be?

TOM O’DONNELL: That’s correct. I mean, as I mentioned before, we’re fairly fortunate in South Australia, like I think we can make obviously great quality wine here quite consistently. We don’t tend to get wiped out like say parts of Europe do by having a significant frost, or a significant rain event, or a lot of disease pressure. What tends to affect Australian or South Australian wines more so than any other weather event is actually heat. So, it can be heat waves in summer, et cetera. So, essentially the lighter of style of wine you pick, the earlier it is. So, we tend to pick a lot earlier in summer. This year, for example, we’re the first winery to bring in any fruit into the winery, where we make our wines with 15 or so other wineries, and we’re certainly the earliest to finish picking.

TOM O’DONNELL: So, what I’d like to think, if we’re avoiding those big hot days, and you think big hot days with fruit out there, essentially you’re turning fresh, beautiful berries into raisins. So, get high sugar concentration, more [inaudible 00:11:57] flavours, definitely higher alcohol as a result. And, to counteract that for balance, you need to add all the oak, et cetera, that I mentioned before, that’s really not our style. So, we’re definitely picking a lot earlier in harvest and getting that result of fresher styles of wine.

JAMES ATKINSON: You mentioned about the penetration of wine on tap in the U.S. What about the canned wine scene over there? How’s that going?

TOM O’DONNELL: I was amazed. I think over the last two or three times that I’ve been to the U.S., the first time I went there you’d see two or three producers, or two or three different cans on the shelf. The next time you’d see it sort of starting to become its own category. And, the last time I was there, which was last year, there was literally whole ends of shelves stacked with different cans. There’d be 30 odd different producers you’d see per store, as well as having its own category in store. So, I saw it in supermarkets. I saw it at airports. I saw it at bars. It was literally everywhere you went, particularly on the West Coast, I should add, there was wine in can readily available.

JAMES ATKINSON: And, there’s even a canned wine competition as well, which you guys picked up a medal at recently?

TOM O’DONNELL: We did. I was pretty happy by that to sort of get some credibility behind what we’re doing. So, it was the International Canned Wine Competition held in California in July. Our red wine, so our 2018 McLaren Vale Grenache actually picked up a gold medal there. It was the only Australian wine in the show to pick up a gold medal, so we’re pretty pumped with that at the moment.

JAMES ATKINSON: And, tell me about the venue that we’re at now, The Cannery.

TOM O’DONNELL: So, we’re sitting at, Riot Wine Co HQ, which in Australia you call things after what they are. So, we thought we’d call it The Cannery, given we’re canning all of our wines here. So, essentially it’s our first bricks and mortar, so we moved in here a few months ago. It’s not our winery. We don’t make any of our wines here. It’s simply our packaging facility. So, in the next few months we’ll fill this out with our own canning line and also our own kegging line. So, we’ll have a essentially complete end to end process from wine making to packaging. It opens up a lot of freedom and flexibility to do more exciting things, to do some limited release runs, particularly with cans, et cetera. But, it also opens up our doors so people can come in and see it.

TOM O’DONNELL: So, if there’s ever any hesitation to keg wine or can wine, we’ve literally now got a home that you’ll come in and see the people that make it, touch it, feel it, et cetera. And, it should give you a sense of what we’re doing, and hopefully a bit of education to the process as well.

TOM O’DONNELL: We’ve got a bar here that has 12 taps, so we’ve got a 12 tap container bar. So, both on tap and in can definitely gives a lot more freedom and flexibility. For example, this year I made a 100% preservative free Rosé. So, it gives us the opportunity to test the lifespan of these products, to gauge some consumer reaction, et cetera as well. So, as I say, it really is an educational tool, not only for people to come in and for people to experience, it’s actually a really good educational tool for us to make wines in slightly different format or slightly different style.

TOM O’DONNELL: I made a collaboration with Pirate Life Brewery this year, where we actually made a 50/50 Riesling Pilsner blend, et cetera, that we’ve got here pouring on tap. So, it definitely opens up the doors to do some smaller scale, more exciting things. So, it’s pretty exciting in the winery at the moment.

JAMES ATKINSON: You mentioned about not really working with oak much with any of your wines. Is that something that you see yourselves bringing in at all in the future?

TOM O’DONNELL: If you think about the styles of wine we’re making, you just put yourself in the head of sort of opening up a can or drinking wine straight from tap. That’s literally the first time that wine’s seen any oxygen from when it was picked as grapes, so when it was fermented. So, the packaging doesn’t… It’s not conducive to aging wines, and it’s not conducive to wines becoming more integrated over time. It makes the wine making process harder in the winery, because we have to get wines in essentially a packaging ready state, a bottle ready state, or can ready state. So, we have to get the wine to its drinkable state.

TOM O’DONNELL: Then we go into its packaging format, which is kegs and cans. And, what it does is it effectively traps wine in its state, current state, or its current time. So, when you open that wine as a can, or when you’re pouring it from tap, you’re literally tasting it as fresh as I made it in the winery, which means that we don’t go through the developing process of wines over time. So, a lot of wines might sit in barrel for two years, and then sit in bottle for two years before they’re released. And, then over time of release they sort of gain ageability, texture, and integration, and that’s awesome. And, that’s great for that category of wine, but it’s the opposite to what we’re trying to do.

TOM O’DONNELL: We’re trying to make these wines… I keep sort of banging on about the same things, but it’s fun, fast, fresh, and accessible. So, they’re very drinkable wines that are still serious in quality, but they’re not oaky. They’re not bombastic. They’re not heavy. They’re not gloopy. They’re definitely on the lighter, brighter, fresher side and style.

JAMES ATKINSON: Any other varieties that you’re hoping to bring to the range of the future?

TOM O’DONNELL: Definitely. So, this year I’ve got a Chardonnay, a Riesling, Pinot Grigio, our Rosé, which is definitely our hero, as well as our Grenache that we have. We make the Chardonnay in two styles, so one is a table wine. One is a sparkling wine. Next year, we’ll actually be adding two more reds into the range, which is a Pinot, Pinot Noir, and also a Shiraz. And, I’m trying to source at the moment. I can’t guarantee it will happen, but I’m trying to source a little Gamay Vineyard that I know exists in McLaren Vale. So, I’m hoping to make a Gamay from McLaren Vale as well, which again is sort of a lighter style red that we can have on both keg and can.

JAMES ATKINSON: So, with some of those varieties that are obviously not coming from McLaren Vale, which regions are you sourcing from?

TOM O’DONNELL: Correct. So, part of the benefit of what we do is we source from all over SA. So, South Australia frankly is a relatively easy state to grow grapes in. It’s warm climate. It’s close to the coast. This is particularly in McLaren Vale, so we’re not conducive to disease pressures that you tend to get in other regions on the East coast, et cetera. So, we go all the way from the Southeast right up to the North part of South Australia, and then down towards McLaren Vale. McLaren Vale is definitely our spiritual home, but we source from six or seven different wine regions, including the Adelaide Hills throughout South Australia

JAMES ATKINSON: Being in what is the wine state of Australia, the home of wine, have you had any feedback from sort of the old guard about your whole concept?

TOM O’DONNELL: Definitely when I started sort of leaving traditional wine and heading into this, there was a few fairly traditional winemakers that thought, “What’s this kid up to?” I think for me personally, the greatest wine show in Australia is the McLaren Vale Wine Show. It’s the largest one, with 600 people.

TOM O’DONNELL: Last few years sort of being back there and spending the day with some of the older guys that I essentially learned my trade from, and definitely the likes of Chester, who owns d’Arenberg, et cetera. Sort of seeing them come in and think, “This is pretty cool,” and really back what we do and get excited about what we do, there’s kind of been a change of guard, I think, as far as traditional wine making is concerned. Rather than people saying, “What’s he up to?” They’re sort of saying, “Awesome, let’s give it a crack, and let’s back it.”

JAMES ATKINSON: Have you entered your canned wines in any traditional wine shows?

TOM O’DONNELL: We are now. So, the answer is yes, we have entered. The results haven’t come out yet. So, we’re entering into the majority of the mainstream wine shows. Historically there’s been a bit of umming and ahhing as to where they fit in judging. So, for example, to use the Grenache, does it fit in the Grenache, or is it judged as a can wine? From my point of view, they need to be judged on merit of what the actual wine is, rather than the packaging. So, we’ve pushed really hard over the last 12 months to get our wines accepted into the traditional judging show. And, the majority of the judges and shows have come back and said, “Yep, not a problem at all.” So, hopefully you’ll see a few more medals in the coming months.

JAMES ATKINSON: And, what about the cans? Like what do you see as being the main occasions that they’re going to suit? They’re obviously going to work for festivals, and Australia’s got this great outdoor lifestyle.

TOM O’DONNELL: Definitely. And, look it is. Practically, it makes a lot of sense. So, anyway, you can’t drink by the glass effectively. So, at festivals, if you’re on a boat, if you’re down by the beach, if you’re having a picnic, that’s really where we thought the market would be when we started it, when we launched, and we’ve actually been proven slightly wrong. It does get consumed in all of those places, but it tends to be Mum and Dad at home, midweek. They want a glass of wine each. You can open a can. There’s two glasses in it. Or, one person wants a white, one person wants a red. We’re going to open two cans, and there’s no wastage. And, you’re not committing to a whole 750 mils. So, we won’t pigeonhole it to mums and dads, but the midweek drinkers wanting a good glass at night, rather than committing to a whole bottle, has sort of really been where we’ve found our success.

Riot Wine Co canned grenache wine Riot Rouge
Riot Wine Co canned grenache wine Riot Rouge

JAMES ATKINSON: Where can people find the Riot wine cans?

TOM O’DONNELL: As off next week, you’ll find that in all Dan Murphy stores across the country, so that’s been a fairly big process for us. That’s our Riot Rouge, so the Grenache is in all of the Dan Murphy’s stores. At the moment, we deal with, in South Australia particularly, most of the independents. And, across the Eastern seaboard as well, it’s in a lot of independent retailers, independent wine stores, et cetera. But, there’s no doubt being involved with the nationals will give us a lot more presence nationally for it to readily be available.

JAMES ATKINSON: Why have they gone with Rouge rather than, you know, the Rosé is your biggest seller?

TOM O’DONNELL: Frankly, timing. It’s winter at the moment, and they have submission processes for wine that I suspect is slightly different to other beverage. And, it’s all about essentially aligning a product with the season. So, we obviously hope that come spring and summer, that we’re also providing Rosé, white wine, et cetera. Rosé is our hero, so we’re definitely expecting to see those wines in store in the future.

JAMES ATKINSON: Well, thanks, Tom. It’s been a great chat.

TOM O’DONNELL: It’s a pleasure. Thanks, James.

Whisky podcast episodes on Drinks Adventures
Australian wine podcast episodes on Drinks Adventures

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