Jeff Slankard is the wine and beer director for Barron’s, a discount specialty grocer with nine stores in southern California. He can tell almost immediately what a certain demographic will buy when they’re in one of the chain’s store.
The couple is in their 30s, Slankard suggested as an example. The woman will buy hard kombucha, the slighty fizzy tea-based drink, and the man will buy craft beer and maybe a bottle of bourbon. “They’re not necessarily wine customers,” he says.
The one exception? They may buy a $15 brand called FitVine, which markets itself as: “Less sugar, fewer sulfites, and no flavor additives for a cleaner wine.”
“It’s done very well for us,” says Slankard, “much better than I had anticipated.”
FitVine reaches that 30- and 40-something consumer that traditional wine may not, thanks to its emphasis on health and well-being. FitVine, as well as products like The Wine Group’s Cupcake Light Hearted; Trinchero’s Mind & Body; and Constellation’s Kim Crawford Illuminate are part of a new generation of wines that promise fewer calories, less sugar, less alcohol, and are gluten free and vegan.
The popularity of these wines over the past year or so – and especially on the US west coast, where these trends seem to start – fits the surge in the high-fat, low-carbohydrate Ketogenic diet in the US By several accounts, ‘keto’ is the most popular eating programme in the diet-crazy US, with as many as one in 10 dieters following its formula. Keto endcaps are common supermarket sights – and even the virtual Amazon Fresh has “keto-friendly” food recommendations.
Is this just Skinny Girl redux, another trendy product that eventually becomes just another label on the shelf?
“I don’t think the wine industry is pushing this,” says Penny Gadd-Coster, the executive director of winemaking for private label producer Rack & Riddle. “This is something we get asked about a lot, from our clients asking for retailers who want this kind of private label. But we would see a lot more if the wine business was pushing this. Instead, it seems like it’s more indirectly happening.”
What’s in the wine?
What makes a “healthy” wine? The definition, not surprisingly, is vague and not defined by federal government regulation. Mark Warren, the co-founder of FitVine, describes his product as natural – that it is, it doesn’t have added grape juice concentrate, it uses minimal sulfites, and there is no oak aging, even with staves, chips, or dominoes. In addition, the wines are fermented as dry as possible, taking as long as 15 days.
In this, he says, FitVine is in marked contrast to labels from the California’s biggest wineries, which use products like MegaPurple to boost color, flavour, and sugar content. “Our approach is a more European style of winemaking,” he says.
That focus on ingredients is standard across all of these new wines. Trinchero’s Mind & Body, for example, advertises itself as having 90 calories and includes the calorie count and a nutrition panel on the back label, even though these are not required by US law. In addition, the label says the wines are vegan, gluten-free, non-GMO and made without added sugar.
“Our wines provide a lighter wine offering for consumers seeking moderated consumption,” says Brie Wohld, Trinchero’s vice president of marketing. “We’re finding that Millennials tend to be most drawn to this wellness-minded offering. Younger consumers appear to be driving this shift as Millennials drink less alcohol than Gen X, and Gen Z drinks less alcohol than Millennials.”
Which may well be the point to these “healthy” wines – that they aren’t what the Baby Boomers drink. “That may well be their appeal,” says Slankard. “The people who are looking for ‘healthy wines’ are not necessarily wine consumers. The wine business is almost saying, ‘There’s this trend out there, and we need to find a product for it.’ ”
That’s why much of the “healthy” wine marketing focuses on the backlash against added sugar that has been gathering momentum in the US for the past 20 years, and that is tied into the current diet trends like Keto and Paleo (which also emphasizes low carbs). Warren isn’t shy about claiming that the biggest wineries add sugar to their products in the form of grape juice concentrates, in the same way multi-nationals add sugar and high fructose corn syrup to products like tinned soup, ketchup, and spaghetti sauce.
Several marketing consultants said it’s almost impossible to overestimate how important this approach is, the idea that mass-produced wines are intentionally “overloaded” with sugar to make them more appealing to the so-called American palate. Yes, it’s illegal to add sugar – as opposed to grape juice concentrate or finished wine – during the winemaking process in California, but most consumers don’t know that. Likewise, there are no GMO elements in wine.
“Low cal and low alc is super on trend,” says winemaker Charles Bieler, whose labels include the French Bieler et Pere Fils, Washington state’s Charles & Charles, and California’s Three Thieves. “I think you have to start with hard seltzer, though it’s not wine technically. And rosé may have played into it, too, since it is dry and low alc. I would imagine that there will be dozens on the grocery shelves by the end of 2021, as ‘better for you’ low sugar/low alc-low cal is an area all the chain buyers are acknowledging that is a trend that they want to be a part of.”
In this, these wines take a giant step toward where the wine industry has never wanted to go. In 2007, the US government proposed adding nutrition and ingredient labels to wine – called a serving facts box – and the wine business (along with craft beer and spirits) lobbied long and hard against the rule. In the end, it won – nutrition labels are optional and are rarely used.
But what about the rest of the market?
The “healthy” wines get much of the attention, but there is more to what’s going on than that. In one way, it’s tied in with the even more anti-establishment natural wine movement, which emphasizes minimal winemaking and has taken a small, if consistent, part of US wine sales. One of the leading proponents of this category is an on-line Napa retailer called Dry Farm Wines. It didn’t respond to several requests to be interviewed for this story, but its mission is clear on its website: “A Philosophy of the World’s Finest Pure Artisan Wines, Hand Crafted with Honesty.” It advertises its wines as sugar free, less than 12.5% alcohol, and lab tested for “purity.” Each wine includes a serving facts label.
The wines it sells, says the site, must be dry farmed without irrigation and must be made with grapes from older vines that have been grown naturally, organically, or biodynamically. Its website features an array of prominent health gurus, most of whom are touting the keto-friendly nature of the wines.
Says one West Coast wine executive, who asked not to be named so as not to offend potential customers: “Like most of these ‘exciting, new’ trends, these ‘healthy’ wines start with a small base, and therefore the growth numbers appear staggering. Retailers have had to add shelf space, so they have taken notice, but it’s not like off-premise has had to jettison their Chardonnay section to accommodate it.”
That’s the case at Bay Area retailer Weimax Wines & Spirits, where owner Gerald Weisl practically sighs when asked about “healthy” wines.
“We do not feature ‘natural’ wines and I am allergic to people who periodically ask for wine on the basis of the wine being some sort of medicinal beverage,” he says. “Many of the wines which are marketed as ‘natural’ are often of dubious quality and we leave those for others. I did attend a tasting of ‘natural wines and spent eight hours evaluating a few hundred wines. Producers and the organizers seemed more interested in the lack of sulfites and alleged organic farming practices than in superior quality wines.”
There’s also an intriguing contradiction to how these wines will be sold at retail over the next couple of years. Yes, many are sold in smaller independents and on-line, like Dry Farm and the much- respected Lou Wine Shop in suburban Los Angeles, whose reason for being is “natural and unusual wines”. But to grow from their small base, “healthy” wines need to be sold at the largest US retailers, and that means supermarkets. And while FitVine is featured at natural grocer Whole Foods, that The Wine Group, Constellation, and Trinchero are bringing products to market means they’ll be on shelves at mass retailers like Walmart, Target, and Kroger – hardly the Dry Farms/Lou Wine Shop demographic.
Hanging over all of this is Skinny Girl, started by Real Housewives television star Bethenny Frankel. Its low-cal wine was one of the hottest products in the country several years ago, and now it’s barely on store shelves. Slankard says he hasn’t seen it in years.
What’s to prevent “healthy” wine from going the same way?
“You know, we were just talking about that in a meeting the other day,” says Warren. “I think the key is to expand our demographic. Frankel never got past that initial demographic. And yes, we started with Lululemon and the yoga mom, and FitVine is female driven, we believe there’s a broad appeal.”
After all, who doesn’t want to drink a “healthy” wine?