No- and low-alcohol wine in the US

The numbers, say analysts, are there for anyone who wants to read them. US consumers are drinking less and are looking for lower-alcohol products. Jeff Siegel reports.

Low- and no-alcohol wines are growing in popularity
Low- and no-alcohol wines are growing in popularity

British drinks consultancy IWSR released two studies over the past year: in its 2019 overview, the group found that one-third of 21- to 24-year-olds and 35- to 44-year-olds say they consume low- or no-alcoholic drinks two or three times a week. And it found, after studying 2018 alcohol consumption, that “low- and no-alcohol brands are showing significant growth in key markets as consumers increasingly seek better-for-you products, and explore ways to reduce their alcohol intake”. Growth of no-alcohol wine is forecast at 13.5%, with low-alcohol wine at 5.6%.

Meanwhile, a proprietary 2019 study by US industry association the Wine Market Council found that younger wine drinkers who cut wine consumption did so because they were drinking less alcohol overall, going from weekly wine drinking to monthly.

This is not an especially surprising trend to Europeans, who have been grappling with it for a couple of years. In fact, an official from Diageo, one of the biggest alcohol companies in the world (whose brands include Smirnoff, Tanqueray and Captain Morgan) predicted last autumn that low- and no-alcohol alternatives would continue to grow, calling it the number one trend in the booze business.

What about the US?

According to a number of studies, including the Wine Market Council study mentioned above, younger consumers – especially Gen Z – want to drink ‘healthier’ wine, says Liz Thach PhD MW, a Distinguished Professor of Wine & Management at Sonoma State University in Rohnert Park, California. “But I was recently at an important marketing seminar, and all of the major wineries were there to talk about new trends. So I asked, ‘What about low- and no-alcohol wine?’ And they looked at me, and the consensus was, ‘No, that’s really not happening.’”

Hence, this kind of ‘healthier’ drinking presents a host of challenges to the California wine business. First and foremost, there’s very little no-alcohol and low-alcohol wine sold in the US. The market share for two of the leading no-alcohol producers, Fre (owned by Trinchero Family Estates) and Ariel Vineyards (owned by J. Lohr) is tiny, probably less than one-half of 1%. Low-alcohol wine, usually defined as 5-11% ABV, may be even more difficult to find, given the American preference – borne out by sales data – for full-bodied Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon and the like.

“I definitely don’t have any alcohol-free wines,” says Chris Keel, who owns the boutique Put a Cork in It wine shop in Fort Worth, Texas. “I have had more requests lately for natural/organic-produced wines than for low- or no-alcohol wines.”

Technical process

The joke in California is that low-alcohol wine is 13.5% ABV instead of 15.5%. Which, believe it or not, is not just a joke – several people interviewed for this story assumed that’s what it was about until told otherwise.

And why not? California’s reason for being since the mid-1990s has often seemed to be to produce ripe, fruity and alcoholic wines. So this sea change in consumer approach would be confusing – and even more so since it’s apparently being driven by the same younger consumers who have been confusing and perplexing California producers since the first Millennials reached legal drinking age at about the turn of the century.

“Young people are much more health-oriented, so what they’re looking for is guilt-free ways to enjoy the pleasure of alcohol,” says Napa wine marketer Paul Tincknell. “They do have a fascination with wine, craft beer and fine cocktails, but come saddled with our culture’s encouraging attitude toward excessive amounts of alcohol. We want to be able to pound a bottle of wine, but instead we want to be able to do it with low-alcohol wine.”

In other words, Dry January and everything that means to people younger than 50. Thach says it almost doesn’t matter if no- and low-alcohol wines are actually healthier then traditional wine drunk in moderation, “but that it’s the psychology behind that perception. If they think it’s healthier, then it is. And there will be a demand for it.”

And that’s because de-alcoholised wine, for all practical purposes, is just that. The process uses the same cone spinning, reverse osmosis method that California winemakers have used for years to reduce high-alcohol wines to 13.5% ABV, says Andrew L. Waterhouse, a wine chemist and professor of oenology at the University of California-Davis.

The wines are fermented normally, and the ethanol is removed via spinning. Then, water and varietal grape juice (and sometimes sugar) are added back to the ethanol-free liquid to produce a no-alcohol wine-like product. Sparkling wine is made in the same way, with a CO2 injection to provide the bubbles. Technically, however, the product isn’t wine. As such, it can’t be labelled as wine or use an appellation or vintage, and it must include the nutrition fact box required by federal law. The good news is that it lists the calories, about half those of traditional wine, but also must list the amount of grape juice and sugar.

Do de-alcoholised wines taste like wine? If anything, they’re inconsistent, which isn’t surprising given the production process. Take the alcohol out with the cone, and it’s difficult for added sugar or varietal grape juice to replicate glycerol’s mouth feel and the aroma molecules lost during spinning, says Waterhouse.

“When my wife was pregnant six years ago, she tried several and none were good enough to pass the test,” says Keel. “And some of the time, lower alcohol means higher sugar.” The Fre Chardonnay purchased for this story tasted more like white grape juice than Chardonnay, not surprising given its 5.4% residual sugar. On the other hand, says Thach, she recently sampled an Ariel sparkling Chardonnay, and it tasted as it should – like sparkling wine made with Chardonnay.

“It’s not the alcohol that’s really the issue when it comes to the appeal of no-alcohol wine,” says Tincknell, “it’s the flavour, the aromas. That’s what’s missing from no-alcohol wines because there isn’t any alcohol.”

Finding a market

No- and low-alcohol wines also have an identity crisis, and it’s much more than the 15/13.5 joke. Does the consumer understand what they are? What exactly constitutes low-alcohol wine? Many product reviews in the US include ciders, products that aren’t readily available, and a jumble of 11-12% ABV white wines. This is in marked contrast to Europe, where a recent British newspaper review included six no-alcohol wines and four with alcohol lower than 9.5% ABV.

Availability, thanks to no-alcohol’s low market penetration, can also be a problem. They’re mostly found in supermarkets and national liquor chains, often displayed with slower selling items like jug wines (bulk wines), vermouth and plum wine. A Fre spokeswoman says that Walmart and Costco, two of the most important US wine retailers, aren’t among the largest Fre accounts. 

Yet many people are more than content with the products. Thach reports that one national retail buyer told her of seeing an uptick in demand for no-alcohol products, and that the chain would act on that. Ariel did not respond to an e-mail and phone request for an interview for this story, but Brie Wohld, Fre’s marketing director, says the demand is there. “We attribute a large part of that growth to changing consumer values and attitudes,” she says. “Younger consumers appear to be driving this shift as Millennials drink less alcohol than Gen X, and Gen Z drinks less alcohol than Millennials. All signs indicate that this shift is here to stay, and that the non-alcoholic beverage category will continue to grow.”

Wohld says Fre’s growth is about three times that of the overall US market, which has been flat to a couple of points a year up as measured by volume for the past several years. She says Fre has 80% of the de-alcoholised market, and seven of its wines are among the country’s top selling no-alcohol labels. Its sparkling, she says, is currently driving growth.

Tincknell says one advantage companies like Fre have is that they understand how to design their product so that it fits into the wine category. They put their product in wine bottles and use labelling similar to traditional wine, as with Fre’s term “sparkling brut” for its sparkling product. This makes the consumer more comfortable about what they’re drinking, he says, because it seems like traditional wine.

The next step

Thach suggests exploring the mid-range of 5-9% ABV wines. The technology exists, she says, to make a low-alcohol Cabernet Sauvignon that smells and tastes like Cabernet, but which has as little as one-third of the alcohol. Low-alcohol should not just be about off-dry wines; why not dry wines? “The Europeans are exploring this,” she says, “so why not US companies? It would seem like the next thing to do.”

Especially if Dry January turns into Dry Spring or Dry Fall.

Jeff Siegel

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