When Ben Parsons decided to open The Infinite Monkey Theorem (TIMT) in an industrial district just on the outskirts of downtown Denver in 2008, most people thought he was crazy. Inside a brick building covered with graffiti and oozing a heavy industrial vibe, he poured wine from taps, something unheard of at the time, and introduced consumers to unique blends. His willingness to lean into the margins led to his success, and he helped launch the urban winery trend that has spread across the country.
He also took another bold step in 2011 when he debuted his first canned wine at the Aspen Food & Wine Classic, which quickly caught the public's attention and heralded another shift in the industry. In 2020 canned wine grew 61% as consumers have embraced a whole new category of products designed for convenience.
In June 2019, Parsons left TIMT (he remains a shareholder) after leading it to nationwide distribution and four taproom expansions in Colorado and Texas. He moved his family to Colorado's Western Slope to focus on building The Ordinary Fellow Winery, a passion project currently being developed.
When Albert Hammond Jr, a member of the band The Strokes, approached him in June 2020 to help create a premium wine seltzer Parsons was intrigued. The two worked together for a year and created JETWAY. The product is currently being rolled out in California and backed by many celebrity investors, including Joaquin Phoenix, Rooney Mara, and Zoey Grossman. The product walks the line between a premium seltzer and an RTD.
To get his take on his new endeavors and where he sees the wine industry heading, I recently talked with Parsons. His comments are slightly edited for clarity.
It seems like everyone is canning things now. Is it now wine's time to embrace this trend? It's interesting, right? Because it's not like can wine hasn't been around for a long time. I mean, you know, they were canning back in the late seventies and the eighties, but it never took off. When I decided to can our wines, something common in Australia where I started in the industry, I was just trying to disrupt the wine industry with an accessible package. I found the wine industry back then had created barriers for itself to perpetuate this elitist feeling and to drive up prices. I figured the least pretentious thing you could do with any beverage was to can it, so we did. It wasn't easy to create a can that didn't cause issues with the liquid inside. For us, we did two years of R&D with Ball Corp before we made something that works. These days, many winemakers rush to can their products and put out a substandard package that hurts them in the long run. An opportunity for the wine industry is to take a base wine that they have created, one that's probably quite good, and experiment with blending it with other ingredients to feed the public's desire for something new and exciting in a can.
What should winemakers focus on to help their canned products succeed?
I think wineries moving into canned wines need to take their time and come to market with something different. The canned wine market is a bit saturated right now, so I recommend bringing something sessionable that still has full flavor and aroma. I think wineries are in the unique position to do this because they are so attuned to their products' nuances. Think outside the box and work in the margins looking for a different way to introduce consumers to your product.
What are some products that have caught your eye lately?
There is this hard seltzer called AMASS. Its branding is very minimalist, and it looks really sexy with lots of botanicals and stuff in it. Plus, it tastes great. I've been really fascinated by sake drinks. Lately, I think that there is a real opportunity there. I have been trying a bunch of them from Japan, and they are so cool. By using sake as a base, brands can create a complex drink with a really nice flavor profile that is different from what you find here.
How did you decide to come into JETWAY?
A friend referred Albert to me. We met, and I really liked him and his passion behind creating a sessionable canned beverage that left you refreshed, not all buzzed up. The idea had come to him after a tour in Europe where he had been drinking Aperol Spritzes and such. I quickly realized that we needed help, so we reached out to a friend of mine, Ethan Stienstra, at Ahead of the Curve Strategy, and they helped us bring the brand into focus. We knew we wanted a higher-end wine seltzer made with the best ingredients that tasted fantastic, no fake shit and stuff. As he and I refined the product, we attracted an impressive array of celebrity investors and built up our go-to-market team. We came up with a Rosé and a White Wine Seltzer made with great wine from the Columbia Valley in Washington State. I decided that this was something that I wanted to be part of and came on full time. If things go according to plan, we will roll the brand out nationwide.
What advice would you give to others trying to break into the industry?
It's the easiest thing to have an idea, but executing it can be a real challenge, but if you don't jump into it, you will never know, right? I started TIMT because my father had just died, and I was working at a job that I was ready to leave. I had an idea for an urban winery but no money, but I didn't care. I found the cash to start, and I busted my ass every minute of every day. I refused to give up. I soon created a loyal group of followers, mostly because I basically lived at the winery, and they supported me and started telling others about TIMT. It was all about the relationships I had created; I was my own salesperson day in and day out.
I mean, come on; basically, everything I did was ripped off from craft beer-taproom, kegs, cool labels, weird names, seasonal releases, and such. Now it seems like everywhere you go, wineries have embraced the laid-back atmosphere that we cultivated it TIMT. I tell people to find their dream and chase it. Also, focus on creating relationships with everyone you come in contact with. If they like you, they will sell your product long after you have left the room.