It’s very difficult in this day and age to say that you are first at anything. By this point in human history (statistician tell us) all the low hanging fruit in regards to “ideas” have been tapped.
However, a man that defies statistics and even what we consider normal in regards to selling fermented grape juice, goes by the name of Ben Parsons. His urban winery The Infinite Monkey Theorem was the first to put wine in a can. This accomplishment, amongst some other impressive accolades, seems to be the one that IMT has become known for.
While this might seem like a low hanging concept, it was much more complicated from the original idea through its fulfillment. When we caught up with Ben at the Denver location, we talked more about the process of making wine, where IMT comes from and what’s next for the truly original urban winery.
How does someone break into winemaking? And where did the idea for an urban winery come from?
I started off back in the UK and got a job with a Wine Merchant in London, delivering these 1,000 bottles on a pushbike to these ambassadors houses that were around. It peaked my curiosity, and so I decided to go to New Zealand and work on a harvest to see if I liked the winemaking process. Which I did, so I ended up applying for a scholarship with the rotary foundation out of Evanston, Illinois, and got it.
I ended up going to Australia and studied for my graduate degree in oenology which is the study of winemaking. When I was finishing up my studies, I was looking for a Northern Hemisphere harvest placement and I saw an advertisement for a winemaker in Colorado.
I did not know there were wineries in Colorado. So in 2001 I applied for the job and got it, so I moved from London to Grand Junction on the Western Slope. I didn’t think I was going to stay in Colorado, but it ended up growing on me.
How big is the winemaking industry in Colorado?
Before Prohibition it was the sixth largest grape growing state in the U.S. Prohibition put an end to that. In the 1960s it was re-planted by a Croatian family — and then in the 1980s they started to get more growth in the industry and then when I moved here [in the early 2000s] there were 36 wineries, now there are 148.
How did the idea of an urban winery get going? Where was the genesis of it?
After traveling back and forth from the Four corners / Western Slope to sell wine in Denver. I said to myself, “This is so stupid that the winery is a six–hour drive from where everyone lives, and where all the restaurants are.” And so in 2008 I set about writing a business plan to start an urban winery in downtown Denver.
Right as the economy crashed I managed to find investors somehow and put all of my inheritance into it. The year before, my father had died of colon cancer which was a turning point in my life and gave me the impetus to do my own thing.
And so in 2008 we found a space on 5th and Santa Fe in the Santa Fe Arts district which is where we started. We found used equipment from all over the country, collected it myself in the back of an old trailer and drove like 20,000 miles in two months.
We started for the harvest of 2008 and everything that we bottled was fruit from Colorado. We really wanted to bring the winery to the people, trying to make wine accessible and fun to everyone, and try to sell it to all the restaurants.
What were some of the challenges that you faced making an urban winery? I imagine being in a city has its limitations?
I don’t see a ton of challenges, I mean I think there are so many more benefits. Like you are surrounded by all of the restaurants, and the Denver food scene has gone crazy over the past five years. You’re surrounded by all of these loft apartments that are being built which is an ideal customer base.
You’re only four hours from the vineyards, which isn’t a huge amount of time. You can be completely transparent about the process, get the people involved in it and show them what you’re doing. And you can create this very loyal customer base of people who really appreciate what you’re doing, like a craft brewery. You have one on every corner here, why not a winery?
What led you to putting wine in a can?
We started doing that in 2010 for the first time. The really important thing there was the utility of the packaging in terms of living in Colorado and accessibility to the outdoors to drink outside when you’re hiking, skiing, and climbing.
And even when you don’t want to open up a whole bottle of wine, they are single serve. Maybe on Monday night you just want a can of wine, and maybe on Friday night you want a whole bottle you know?
None of that affects the flavor or quality of the wine?
Not at all, it’s really about the convenience and cutting through the unnecessary barriers to entry, which the wine industry builds I think. It literally builds them to make it harder for people to get into winemaking.
It seems like the image the wine industry is trying to cultivate is one that can’t be enjoyed by those of a “commoners” status, even though its always been a commoners drink. How is the industry changing, and how are you a part of that change?
I think we are way ahead of the curve, you know, it‘s an old industry — maybe 8,000 years old and it’s very slow moving. You would think it would be more creative than it is, but these barriers have been built almost intentionally to keep people employed.
It’s more expensive to get into making wine than you’d think, but that’s what we have done very well is kind of turn this industry on its head and lead the charge in canned wine.
Which is now the fastest growing category now for wine in the United States. There are now 400 wineries putting wine in a can that benefited from the year of research that we did.
So you guys are officially the first.
Yeah, we are the first winery to put wine in a 250ml can in the United States. Food and wine magazine recently named us one of the 40 wines ever made that changed the way people drink wine. Next to Robert Mondavi, Opus One, and Chateauneuf-du-Pape. So amongst some of the biggest names ever, IMT is thrown in there — which is pretty cool.
It seems like you guys have changed the way people are consuming alcohol on a fundamental level, people are even talking about canned spirits now.
Yeah and they have been around a while too you know, to be honest canned wine has been around a while now in Europe, and even Coppola was putting a sparkling wine in a can, but only once a year and they would have to line the inside of the can twice. There was no research done into it, and so when IMT approached it we said “look we want to make this a category, we don’t want to do just tiny little cans.” We wanted to the original Red Bull sized can.
It took a year of research into poly laminate linings to make it a reality. We didn’t think that canned wine would take off really, but it did finally.