Before there was Archer Roose, or Lubanzi, or Ramona, or even Underwood—in other words, before there was wine in a can that was remotely acceptable to drink in front of other humans—there was SOFIA.
One of the first truly popular canned wines, SOFIA was the brainchild of filmmaker and winemaker Francis Ford Coppola, who named the wine for his now-also-quite-famous daughter, Sofia.
Corey Beck, the General Manager and Director of Winemaking for Francis Ford Coppola Winery, started working for the Napa Valley business in 1998, at the historic Inglenook Winery in Rutherford, where Francis raised his family. Beck became one of Francis’s most trusted deputies, helping to lead many of the auteur’s projects that stretched far beyond his famed Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon.
Beck was tapped to work on the launch of SOFIA, one of the world’s first sparkling wines in a can. Sofia Coppola, who was just coming into her own as a director, fashion icon, music aficionado and–though the term had yet to be born in 1999–influencer, was the face of the brand, which took off like a rocket.
Corey recently talked with The New Wine Review about how it all went down.
One of the very first projects I was tasked with working on was SOFIA—in the bottle. It was a promise Francis had made to his daughter about making a sparkling wine named after her. It was intended for her wedding, which was in 1999.
And then in 2002 he said, ‘You know, I’m thinking of putting a wine in a can, I don’t understand why, if I go to the supermarket, I can buy a single serving of a beer, but I can’t do that for wine.’ He couldn’t fathom the kind of thinking that insists wine has to have a cork and a bottle. He was just looking at something that he wanted to consume in a convenient way. Some wine traditionalists thought “that’s not how you package a wine,” but Francis never wavered.
So we start researching how to do this, and we’re trying to figure out where we’re going to can it, because on the West Coast, none of the canning facilities had a wine permit that allowed them to put wine in a can. And the craziest thing, the only place that we could find that could do it was in Lawrenceburg, Indiana, at a facility that was canning different canned cocktails, like Jack and Coke, things like that.
So we sent the wine out to Indiana, had it canned and then sent the product back to California where we put the straws on and then redistributed SOFIA throughout the country. It was the most inefficient situation. That lasted a couple of years until we were able to help get Barney Brothers in California (the canner for Rockstar Energy Drink) a permit. That was much more efficient.
Sofia was a younger consumer. She was somebody who was pretty plugged into her generation in terms of music and going out, and certainly her movie career had already started. The wine just developed a life of its own, because it was so new.
Sofia did a lot of grassroots placements when we launched. She was always promoting every time she went out in L.A. and it kind of took its own path to success in Southern California.
We then started to launch new things. We always had a Blanc de Blancs but then we did a Brut Rosé. We did the regular Rosé, the SOFIA Rosé, in cans. It was really refreshing to get emails from Sofia as this was evolving saying, ‘oh, my gosh, you know, we went to this club in L.A. and saw SOFIA.’ The enthusiasm around it was pretty impressive.
I remember pouring the minis for the first time at the Nantucket Wine Festival, we had a constant line of people, both consumers and press. The feedback was incredible. That’s really when we knew there was something special about what we had created. Every time we did a presentation, we received an order. 100% of the time.
We do a launch in Las Vegas, and we get the whole team out, the marketing folks, and me, and we’re presenting this in a room full of people that are working in Vegas. They see what we’re doing and they start saying, ‘this would be great at the Bellagio, this would be great at a club, this would be great here,’ because folks just want convenience. It’s even convenient for the bartender who doesn’t have to open up a bottle.
I think it was refreshing for the Coppolas—Francis and Eleanor specifically—that it wasn’t named for Francis. At some point he got tired of using his name. SOFIA took on its own life and that was the beauty of it.
The Coppolas, no matter how busy they are, will make time for the artistic side of things. If it is going to have their name on it, Sofia, Eleanor, Francis, Roman, Gia, they always make the time to ensure there’s authenticity.
SOFIA was probably about 15% of our business, but it’s an interesting 15%. That might not seem like a lot, but in terms of the PR that came with it, it gave us something to talk about. It was new, different, and that’s what people wanted. We’re still in that place. SOFIA’s volume has grown over the years, so much so that we purchased a canning line for our minis and a Charmat sparkling line.
You can’t be too traditional if you’re going to work for Francis. I love this story: As this idea for SOFIA was coming up, Francis sent an email to me and my boss. And Francis writes, ‘Hey, I’m thinking about the canned wine; can you give me your thoughts?’ So my boss comes in, and he says to me, ‘respond to Francis and tell him why we can’t do this.’
So I respond to Francis’s email and throw in some of my UC Davis technical wine training and what not. And Francis sends me back a response–I mean, it took 30 seconds for him to get back to me with one quote: ‘Do not be the roadblock to creativity.’ Wow, that was it. The good news is he didn’t fire me, but it taught me a really great lesson.