The Western Australian Filmmaker Bringing Natural Wine to Cans

There are two trends taking hold of the wine market, with no signs of loosening their grip: natural wine and cans. I recently spoke to Ian Batt, an award winning filmmaker and now chief winemaker, who combines the two under his co-founded label Small Things Wine. 

After filming an Australian Wine documentary series with the ABC in 2011 Ian Batt became intrigued by the world of wine. This, and his environmental values, eventually led him to the career changing question, why don’t we see more wine in cans? After completing a degree in winemaking, Ian and co-founder Cleve Robinson started Small Things Wine- the first 100% canned natural wine brand in Western Australia. 

So let’s dive in and find out what Ian had to say about natural wine, cans, camping, the planet and filming with the West Coast Eagles.

The Tasting Room

What does the perfect drop of wine look like to you?

A can of WA Pinot Noir drunk from a hammock in the bush

If you had to pair your favourite film with a glass of wine, what would it be?

Secret Life of Walter Mitty and a glass of Etna Rosso

What is one thing you hope never changes when it comes to the wine industry? 

Great people collaborating and sharing knowledge and pushing the forefront of Western Australian Wines

Describe your winemaking philosophy in one sentence. 

Make the best bloody wine possible and share it with as many people as possible

What does the name of your wine label, “Small Things Wine,” mean?

I hope it means that good things can come in small packages  ‘…. from small things, big things grow’ 

Photo credit: Small Things Wine

The Full Case

What is the story so far, and how does it involve you going from making films to natural wine? 

There was no serendipitous moment, in the “lens” of my life the transition into wine was both sudden and over the course of many years. 

I’ve been privileged to shoot all around the world, invited into the lives of some amazing people and places (and alot of the time un-invited too!). There’s been some tricking moments on those adventures from shooting in the Indian Himilayas with Shaun Micallef to shooting undercover in an Indonesian prison for a HBO doco about a well known Australia drug dealer, it’s safe to say the wine industry does offer a significant contrast. However, surprisingly, the film and wine industry are very comparable. Where you have a director you have a winemaker, instead of a producer you have the winery owner and the film crew are like the cellar hands. Both industries involve a lot of collaboration, and getting to work with the best people around. I love in the wine industry how people stick together and help out each other. I’m particularly proud and grateful for the team we have both in the winery and our growers in the regions- after all it’s the sum of the parts that make us. 

The major catalyst for moving into making sustainable canned wine would have been two series I filmed. The first was the documentary series, The Tipping Points which took me all over the world to the current hot spots of change -like the Amazon and Greenland where I got to experience first hand the impact of climate change. It really instilled in me that  we all need to make changes.

Right to left: Small Things Wine co-founders Ian Batt and Cleve Robinson

The second would be Chateau Chunder with ABC, a historically accurate documentary series with a Monty Python-esque approach that saw us travelling the world interviewing the people who pioneered wine in Australia in the 60’s. It was a pretty insane experience. We got to drink Grange with Peter Gago at Penfolds, explore James Halliday’s wine cellar with him, interview Oz Clark in the UK and eat lunch with Michel Chapoutier in the Rhone Valley. Meeting these amazing and influential people really kicked things into gear for me, and inspired me to delve further into the world of wine. It piqued my curiosity…. Why isn’t there wine in cans in Australia? 

I was ready to try something new that felt important to me. At that point I had been a filmmaker and cinematographer for 20 years, had travelled the whole world and won awards . Next thing I know I am finishing up a wine degree at Curtin University in the Margaret River Campus, and now here I am making environmentally conscious wine in a can. 

What motivated you to be the first to make natural wine in cans in Australia? 

A bit of background on wine in cans, we certainly aren’t the first in Australia to do it! In fact it was the 1950s when it was first started (with imported Beaujolais of all!). 

I honed in on wine in a can based on my own consumer preferences and the importance of moving towards a more sustainable future. All in all though, my own preferences and reasons for promoting cans also resonate with todays’ consumers. Like many things, the booze people buy represents their values and impacts their purchasing decisions. When the concept to bring Small Things Wine to life there was no varietal, vintage wine in the can. It was bulk non vintage wine from overseas or from South Eastern Australia. Small Things Wine has grown to represent those that agree that great wine from great wine growing regions can be found in cans. Now our cans  provide consumers with the ability to make the lifestyle and environmentally conscious choices they want to make with great wine from Margaret River.  

When it comes to lifestyle, wine doesn’t just belong at the dinner table, there are heaps of environments to enjoy wine where a bottle doesn’t really work. I love hiking and  spend a lot of time with friends outdoors, which cans really cater to. That’s why our slogan is “made for the wild,” because you can take a can of Small Things Wine anywhere. You aren’t just limited to beers and RTD’s! Now, when I hike the Bibbulmun Track in WA  over several days I can pack a can for each night, crush it up and easily carry it back home and recycle. It fits my lifestyle, and many other peoples. 

Compared to their glass counterparts, cans have a green footprint. When we use cans in our manufacturing process our carbon footprint is reduced by almost  50% of what it is for glass bottles. Then you factor in that cans are made from easily recyclable materials, 25 times more recyclable than glass. In fact each can our wine comes in has been recycled 25 times beforehand, which is due to a closed loop where once a can is used it is eventually returned and recycled into a new can. When we get to the supply chain cans are significantly lighter than bottles which makes them cheaper and more energy efficient to transport. On the consumer end they are also significantly quicker to chill, which again uses less energy there as well. 

There is a lot of power behind the drive to make greener purchasing decisions and cans are how we are advocating for greener alternatives in the wine industry. 

As a new brand entering the market in 2020, how have things been for you?

Unfortunately 2020 was the year we were planning to launch, and we had everything ready to go so we could hit the ground running. From wineshows through to festivals, everything was in place- until it wasn’t due to the pandemic. A large part of our brand’s messaging and focus is the fact that Small Things Wine can be taken anywhere. Wine isn’t just to be enjoyed at the dinner table with friends, it’s also something you might want to enjoy when you are at a festival, camping or hiking. We are excited for outdoor events to return, as we know that Small Things Wine is going to be a great fit for that market. 

We are definitely seeing a lot of interest in our wines however, and I think it’s because a lot of people care alot about the things we do. Particularly when it comes to the sustainability aspect, as today’s consumers do care about the environmental impacts of their purchasing decisions and we meet their needs in that way. People also love natural wine, and cans allow them to mix and match high quality wine made from some of WA’s best parcels. 

We have had a lot of interest from consumers like myself, as well as the vegan community and international markets including South Korea, Sweden and Japan.I made Small Things Wine to meet my own desires when it comes to wine, so it’s great to see that other people feel the same way. It’s also comforting to know we are heading in the right direction. 

Between making wine, have you been filming any new projects?

In light of the situation COVID created for producers globally, I was fortunate enough to be in the AFL (australian football league) travel bubble last year. After vintage I was part of a national team filming a documentary series called “Making their Mark” for Amazon about the West Coast Eagles. It was an extraordinary experience being invited into the players lives as I followed their story as they travelled Australia playing football during a global pandemic. From spectator-less games, covid testing twice a week, hotel quarantine and police visits. It definitely provided me with a new perspective of the impacts of COVID-19. 

Photo credit: Sofia Bardot

Talk to us about the Small Things Wine process, from vine to can…

We would like to be known as a brand that promotes sustainability and natural wines to people who think outside the box (or bottle!) .

Our first vintage was in 2018 with one tonne of Frankland River Riesliong, but we didn’t get the cans until my two other business partners joined me at Small Things Wine the following year. We had to purchase our own canning line and machinery, which delayed things a bit. The chance of cross contamination with using beer lines was not one I wasn’t willing to take. In fact, getting the wine into cans has been such a challenge , it’s almost made the winemaking seem like the easy part!

The wine itself is made using minimal intervention methods, with sustainably farmed grapes selected from the most highly coveted vineyards in Margaret river. I am really pleased to be producing natural, Sustainable Wine Australia certified wines from Margaret River  and the Frankland river and Pemberton Regions of Western Australia. 

Provenance and quality is a really important part of Small Things Wines, as it is something that matters a lot to wine drinkers (like myself). The story of provenance and varietal distinction was something I noticed lacking in the canned wine market- even throughout the US, which has an estimated 300+ canned wine brands. That’s why I make sure our wines highlight the characteristics of terroir and fruit, without passing on the cost to consumers. We want to be a brand that makes wine that under promises and over delivers. I feel that’s where the current canned wine sector can develop. 

We also make the wine with the can in mind. The methods we use to produce each wine consider many aspects including the way the can may impact the sensory experience of the wine. We don’t just make wine and put it into whatever format we want. Making quality natural wine is really important, and we want the experience of drinking a can of our wine to be on par with a quality bottle of wine.

Cans are still a relatively new thing to wine, what’s it been like going against the grain in this format?

I mentioned a major hurdle being getting the wine into the can in the first place, the other one is breaking the stigma around canned wine and convincing people it can be good. The US market has around 300+ canned wine brands, as I said earlier, that produce in high volumes and are highly competitive. However, as a lot of this canned wine is produced in bulk, sweet and carbonated and this has skewed the perception around the quality of canned wine. In a way, canned wine has been simultaneously underrepresented and poorly represented.

There is not a lot happening in the canned wine industry, particularly in Australia, when it comes to high quality or natural wines. It is a new space to tackle, but we want to be part of the few who are trying to do it right. We want to deliver the same experience as bottled wine through cans to people, and highlight the characteristics of the regions the wine comes from through minimal intervention winemaking methods. 

To keep up with Ian Batt and the Small Things Wine Story follow them on Instagram and Facebook. To get your hands on their delicious natural wine in cans (3 cans= 1 bottle!), visit the Small Things Wine online store.

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