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On New Year's Eve, pop the top: It's champagne in a can

WASHINGTON—Filmmaker Francis Ford Coppola, a California vintner by avocation, is making Americans an offer he hopes they won't refuse: He's asking them to drink his champagne out of cans.

The new bubbly—named Sofia, after Coppola's moviemaking daughter—comes in individual servings of about six ounces. It's offered in a demure raspberry, plastic-lined can with a straw attached to the side just like Juicy Juice. It retails for $5 a pop or $20 for a four-pack, which comes packaged in a hexagonal foil carton, also raspberry color, with circles like champagne bubbles cut out of its sides.

If taste is the point, Sofia may be a decent bargain. Craig Baker, a Washington, D.C., buyer of imported wines for Robert Kacher Selections and someone who makes his living by his palate, rated canned Sofia second against four comparably priced bottled sparkling wines in a blind tasting organized this week by Knight Ridder.

But taste is almost beside the point, according to bar managers, young women who choose Sofia and even Erle Martin, the president of Niebaum-Coppola, the filmmaker's wine business.

"It's a very cool presentation of a decent wine," said Maria Elena Gutierrez, 28, sipping Sofia at Mie N Yu, a swanky Georgetown club full of handsome young people in dark clothes.

For them, it's not just the wine that's being presented, said Saeed Bennani, Mie N Yu's worldly beverage manager.

"You're drinking champagne out of a can with a straw. It's different. So you're different," Bennani explained. "What's in the can almost doesn't matter."

According to Martin, Coppola's initial idea was to offer individual servings of conventionally bottled Sofia, which sells for about $20. Single servings of champagne and other sparkling wines are big sellers in Europe, especially among trendy young Riviera vacationers.

Coppola rejected on aesthetic grounds the scaled-down glass or plastic bottles in which European vintners sell their products, Martin said. But he was drawn to cans by their untapped advantages: "They're lighter. They're less expensive. They cool faster and they're easier to dispose of," Martin said.

Moreover, cans are welcome in several potentially lucrative settings where bottles are not, he added: "At poolside, at sporting events and at campsites."

In addition, market research showed that many young women who like sparkling wine and could afford it weren't buying it. They didn't want to drink a whole bottle and didn't trust stoppers, they said. They weren't comfortable popping corks or felt they lacked the proper stemware.

Finally, suggests Martin, "there's just something intensely sexy about drinking a product through a straw."

Enter canned Sofia, aka the Sofia Mini.

Although drinkers call it champagne, technically it's not: Only sparkling wines produced in the French province of Champagne can call themselves that. It also calls itself Blanc de Blancs, but that label traditionally denotes a sparkling wine made entirely of Chardonnay grapes, while Sofia's a blend of pinot blanc, sauvignon blanc and muscat canelli.

For that matter, while the Sofia Mini enjoys the cachet of Coppola's distinguished Rutherford, Calif., winery, it's made and canned by Francis Coppola Presents, Coppola's Italian-style organic food company. The operation is based in Lawrenceburg, Ind., which is not exactly Napa Valley.

Finally, champagne traditionalists may be dismayed by the sound that Sofia makes when it's opened, which is as calm as a can of peanuts.

"People love the pop when they open a bottle of bubbly," said Sue Furdek, spokeswoman for competitor Domaine Chandon. "It tells them the fun is about to begin."

In order to prevent the can from exploding, the wine is canned with a small amount of air inside, which means it also ages nearly four times faster than wine in a bottle. Instead of a vintage year, the bottom of the can carries an expiration date.

Washington bartender Joe Cleveland said that his upscale Washington restaurant and bar, Oya, which serves the sporting crowd around the capital's MCI Center, dropped Sofia recently due to a variant of the can problem.

Diners liked Sofia fine when it was served to them at their tables in a glass, Cleveland said. But some balked when they later ordered another Sofia at the bar and saw that it came from a can. "Generally it was the old ones, not the young ones," Cleveland reported.

That doesn't surprise Vic Motto. Motto, the founder of the MKF wine-consulting firm based in St. Helena, Calif., said that the key to Sofia's hipness for young drinkers is that it's not their parents' champagne.

"They want to demystify wine. They want the can. They want something that's different so they can make it theirs," Motto said of younger imbibers.

"They're adopting wine at twice the rate of their parents," he noted. "And they're entering the market at a higher price point," meaning that they're willing to pay more.

Canned Sofia is sold nationwide, principally at Whole Foods and Trader Joe's stores. It's also available in many wine shops. It can be ordered and shipped from www.sofiamini.com to any state in which Internet ordered shipments are legal. The site lists the legal states.

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