Growing & Winemaking


A Conversation with Ryan Harms

May 2016
by Laurie Daniel
Ryan Harms

When Ryan Harms started classes at Binghamton University in upstate New York, he planned to become a doctor. But during his sophomore year, “Organic chemistry kind of did its damage.”

With no strong plan, he thought back to his interest in wine. The family of his high school sweetheart, Tori (now his wife), always had wine on the table, and he would hear the stories behind particular bottles and sometimes get a taste. Harms was looking at the website for Rex Hill Winery in Oregon and saw the email address for then-winemaker Lynn Penner-Ash. He started picking her brain about the wine industry, and she finally told him that the best way to learn was to work a harvest, which he did at Rex Hill in 1997.

Harms went on to earn his degree in environmental science in 1999, and he worked for a time for a health insurer. When a reorganization eliminated his job, he reconnected with some of the people he’d met in Oregon and found a job at Bergstrom Wines. He worked for several wineries before starting Union Wine Co. in 2005.

The goal of the Union team, located in Tualatin, Ore., is to make wine affordable and less fussy. To that end, Harms started packaging some wines in cans under the Underwood label, which he had started in 2006. The canned wines were launched in 2014 and now account for about 25% of Union’s sales.

Harms also makes wine for the Alchemist and Kings Ridge brands, and he bought Amity Vineyards with his brother, Eric Harms, in 2014.

Q: Why package wine, especially high-quality wine, in cans?

RYAN HARMS: For a number of years we have been talking about the idea of having better packaging options to bring our wines on the adventures we have around Oregon. Wine was missing from many of the activities that we enjoyed because glass was less than ideal to bring along. As we watched craft breweries locally start to can more beer, the idea was discussed about canning wine and what a great package that would be.

So in spring 2013, we were talking about some ideas for an event we were going to do in the fall called FEAST Portland. We thought this would be a great opportunity to introduce the idea of canned still wine, but also the can would do a great job of communicating some of the values we have as an organization. At Union we talk about this idea of “pinkies down,” not taking ourselves too seriously, making our wines accessible, doing away with what we perceive to be the barriers wine can create for consumers. The can embodies all this in a simple package. FEAST Portland was a huge success, and in the spring of 2014 we started selling our cans. Union Wine Co. just celebrated its 10-year anniversary in 2015, and our bottle business has been growing (in the) double-digits for years. We wanted the cans to be simply a packaging alternative to our bottled wines, which many consumers were already familiar with. To that end, it was important that the wines we put in bottle and in cans were the same blends.

Q: There must have been something of a learning curve when you started. How did you find someone to can your wines, and what sort of technical issues did you face? Do you have to make adjustments, for example, in SO2 additions?

HARMS: Union Wine Co. is a small company, and sometimes I feel it is challenging to have enough resources to work quickly to bring ideas to reality. I am very proud of my team: From the point that we said we wanted to take this from an idea to a commercial product was less than 12 months. We have taken our lumps along the way, but it has been instructive and ultimately has made us better at what we are doing.

We reached out to Owen Lingley at Craft Canning in Portland (Oregon) to talk the idea out and get some assistance thinking through the challenges of accomplishing what we wanted to do. He was excited and saw the potential and was very supportive from day one. Owen was able to adjust his equipment, which is set to run 12-ounce cans, to run the 12.7-ounce cans. Owen also invested in a nitrogen doser, which we needed so we could create the necessary internal pressure to support the side walls of the can. This all took some investment, and we also invested time to adjust equipment that is principally created for the beer industry so it would work for still wine.

We have found that we can lower the free SO2 in cans versus the levels we traditionally go to bottle with, but beyond that we don’t change anything else about the wine before packaging.

In the first year of packaging our cans, we simply put them in a 24-pack flat and shipped them to accounts that way. Unfortunately, we found that the cans were easily dented and would bounce out of the cardboard flat. Learning from this experience, we found a solution to start shrink-wrapping the flats in 2015, which greatly diminished the amount of damaged goods. As we began the process of scaling what we were doing, we also realized that the canning equipment we were using was a limiting factor, plus we had to take the flats post-canning to another facility to shrink-wrap. So in fall 2015, we moved our canning to Varni Bros. in Modesto, Calif. They had been doing some wine packaging for some other canned products. While we’re not excited to be shipping tankers to California and losing some control, Varni Bros. has given us significant advantages in production capacity and technical know-how.

Q: Why are you using 375 ml (12.7-ounce) cans?

HARMS: When we looked at canning, I wanted to use a 12-ounce can due to its familiarity to the consumer and felt it would best display our branding. The smaller cans that some wineries use just felt too dainty and precious for our brand. Of course, we can’t use a 12-ounce can because of TTB regulations, and thus began my search for a 375ml can with the same diameter as a traditional 12-ounce can. Little did I know that this choice would present many challenges. The search lead me to Ball UK, where they make this can roughly twice a year. The limited manufacturing schedule, transatlantic shipping, West Coast port congestion and large minimums were all challenges we had to overcome in our first runs with this new product. We decided to print our cans without vintage dates so we could minimize waste as we would move from one vintage t o the next. We have been able to print the vintage on the bottom of cans so we can track what is on the shelf and compare the cans more easily with the bottled wines. We are now in a good place with our supply chain and logistics, which has allowed more continuity of supply for us to be able to fulfill orders.

While we are committed to the 375ml size, we have begun exploring a domestically produced 250ml. We recognize that for, say, sports venues, this smaller format may fit more appropriately or comply with their alcohol policies.

Q: Most of your bottled wines are under screwcap. Which closure are you using and why?

HARMS: Through the years I have worked with BT-Watzke’s foils, and when we decided to review our screwcap supplier they were an obvious choice for us. They have done a great job of delivering the performance we are looking for in our closure and the decorating abilities we need, and they meet our delivery and logistic needs.

Q: What sorts of adjustments do you make to wines that are under screwcap?

HARMS: With our wines under screwcap we don’t make many adjustments that are different from the can or our cork-finished wines. The one area where we have made some adjustments is with free SO2. In the early days, we were going to bottle with lower free SO2 (18-22 ppm) and found some of our wines evolving faster than I would have liked. When we started looking deeper into it, we saw that our dissolved oxygen levels were on the high side. By using a DO meter, we are doing a better job on our pre-bottling quality control, and we decided to bottle our wines under screwcap at higher free SO2 levels (28-32 ppm) than we had been doing previously to ensure we are satisfied with how they evolve.

Q: Why continue to use cork on some of your wines?

HARMS: With our Alchemist and Amity wines, we are still using cork. With Alchemist, we felt that cork was an appropriate closure for both performance and aesthetic reasons. Amity Vineyards, which I purchased with my brother Eric Harms in April 2014, has traditionally used cork as a closure for all its wines. While we are redoing the packaging, we wanted to be careful about how many changes we made before we had a sound understanding of what was working and not working for the brand. For some of the Amity Vineyards white wines, I think screwcap is totally appropriate, and we will be discussing that change this year with the intent to make changes in 2017. We are also looking at DIAM corks and running some trials, as I still am disturbed at the number of corked wines I see and feel that the failure rates of that closure are really unacceptable.

Q: You’ve used kegs but haven’t made a big commitment to that package. Why not?

HARMS: I love the idea of keg wines! They align with so many of our values and have benefits on a number of levels within the system. The challenge that I have is getting the logistics solved to manage kegs when they are in the market. Brewers have developed the infrastructure to manage kegs in their space, but for wineries this would be a substantial investment. I know there are some third-party vendors who can assist with this, but we have looked into the fee structure and have made a decision to not move in that direction yet. We have also looked at one-way kegs, but while this solves the return issue, it is adding to the complexities of the waste/recycling stream, so we haven’t moved in that direction either.

A resident of the Santa Cruz Mountains, Laurie Daniel has been a journalist for more than 35 years. She has been writing about wine for publications for more than 21 years and has been a Wines & Vines contributor since 2006.

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