By Laura Ness
Much has been written about the burgeoning trend towards “better for you” beverages in the wine space. It’s definitely a thing. But, is it a sustainable thing?
Zero alcohol wines like Ariel and St. Regis have been with us for decades, and have their devoted followers. Their secret is the same as that of pop wines like The Prisoner, Ménage à Trois Silk and Apothic Red, to name a few. That is, in a word, sugar. We Americans love sugar. Probably even more so than yeast do. Bless them for turning sugar into alcohol and then perishing in the process. We owe so much to yeast.
Our question is, do these lo and no options really satisfy an actual need, or are they a prettily tied fly looking for a fish?
Making low, and especially no, alcohol wines (as opposed to spritzers) is not trivial. It requires stripping to reach the desired levels of alcohol, and in the process, something besides the alcohol is lost. It’s a slippery slope to find the balance between “better for you” and “still tastes good enough to want to drink.” Because in the end, isn’t that what makes a product successful?
We tasted some pretty rude examples of low and no wines, and no, we’re not naming names. We also tasted some fairly decent ones that are close to or actually drinkable. Kind of like light beer.
If you’re really looking to cut down on alcohol in your wine, you have two choices: drink wines from regions that naturally produce wine in the sub 12% range, or try a product like Trinchero’s Mind+Body’s 9% Pinot Grigio (90 calories per 5 oz serving), which blends nicely with a bit of full strength white that is maybe a bit oaky or a tad bit sweet. Same for their rosé and cabernet. If it’s calories and alcohol reduction you’re looking for, those wines are a good start. It’s amazing what you can do if you blend, though.
For those who can’t or don’t want to drink alcohol but still want some wine-like flavor, choices are really limited. Winemaker Brent Amos of Las Positas (Livermore) is working on some lo (Lean) and no (Minima) choices, and he’s aiming to keep the sugar out of them as much as possible. He’s concerned about the healthy side of the category and wants to keep the RS and carbs to a minimum. The “Minima” dealc’d white and red blends are certainly wine like in aromas but they are pretty light on flavor. He’s still experimenting with the flavor profiles. The “Lean” choices are promising, offering good aromatics and just 7% alcohol (85 calories per 5 oz serving), with fairly accurate wine flavors. The white blend is satisfying and the rosé, with cranapple and pink lemonade flavors, is quite pleasant. There’s promise here, and good wine behind it, which is half the battle in the bottle. The products are not yet released.
If you’re really looking for a wine-flavored experience in a less caloric and lower alcohol beverage, you might be better off choosing a wine spritzer. It’s easier to juice up the flavors in a carbonated beverage, and since you are starting with pure wine, and just adding sparkling water and some hopefully natural flavor, you’re mostly at the mercy of those fruity essences.
So, what’s the lowdown behind some of these new lower alcohol offerings? We asked the brand managers of three new products, Christine Moll of Line 39, Dana Epperson of Decoy (a Duckhorn brand), and Heidi Scheid of Scheid Family Wines, to fill us in on their “better for you” choices.
Apparently, Decoy’s seltzers began life a few summers ago as “The Ducky,” created by Duckhorn Portfolio CEO Alex Ryan, who has been with the company since 1988. Based on Decoy Sauvignon Blanc, sparkling water, ice, and a twist of lime, the concoction he made to enjoy warm summer afternoons with family and friends, inspired a new line of seltzers, based on Decoy’s premium wines.
Vice President, Decoy Winemaking, Dana Epperson, says they are the only premium offering on the market in the “premium wine seltzer” sub-category. “Consumers are showing considerable interest in malt alternatives, so I think we’ll see more and more wine consumers seeking out higher-quality options. There should be no need to compromise flavor for convenience.” Their main consumer is already familiar with the Decoy brand, a recognized leader in luxury wine. “We wanted to create a product that was differentiated from mainstream malt-based seltzers while also having a broad appeal to our current Decoy wine drinkers. Decoy Premium Seltzers are geared to both men and women looking for alternatives and willing to pay a little more for a premium product.”
Decoy purposely chose a 250ml can form factor for the visual aesthetic, and the appearance of a premium product. Wines they’ve already made, including sauvignon blanc, chardonnay, and rosé, sourced from prime vineyard sources, are utilized as the base, diluted down with mineral water to 5.5% alcohol. After many months of experimentation, which involved enhancing their varietal wines with carefully chosen fruit flavors, Epperson says, “I love what we have created. Our elevated seltzers are low calorie (only 80 calories per serving), low alcohol (5.5% ABV), and low carb, with zero added sugar, offering up a delicious gluten-free alternative to artificially flavored malt-based beverages. A low and appealing ABV was always in the back of our heads when crafting these seltzers, but we really wanted to put focus on the flavors using varietals.”
The Decoy premium seltzers are currently available in sauvignon blanc with vibrant lime, chardonnay with lemon and ginger, chardonnay with clementine orange and rosé with black cherry. They are sold in 4-packs for $15. Epperson expects additional flavors to the lineup, noting, “We knew that if we were going to introduce high-end wine seltzers worthy of the Decoy name, they would have to be something special.” We found the sauvignon blanc seltzer to be the most refreshing and naturally appealing of this lineup, in general, enjoyed them more over ice with a bit of fresh citrus.
Christine Moll, Chief Marketing Officer of O’Neill Vintners & Distillers, pretty much bubbles over with enthusiasm when talking about the new Line 39 brand of wine-based spritzers that launched in March. “I never thought I would ever have so much fun! I’m very excited to be on the front lines. We were very thoughtful in developing these products. We wanted a new elevated experience, not based on sweet flavors.”
Targeting the “better for you” market, the spritzers come in convenient single-serving 250ml resealable aluminum bottles, that are only 100 calories with 5% alcohol. They are $12.99 for a 4-pack, making them a price winner.
Inspired by the ready to drink trend that began in 2018, the marketing and winemaking teams at O’Neill wondered where it might be going next. In their research, says Moll, they found that 75% of consumers wanted to enjoy beverages with more flavor and specifically, with more wine forward flavors. She says their target audience for Line 39 wines is millennials, and those over 35, who have a more settled life than Gen X. “Family life has taken over, but they are still looking for good quality in every aspect. They don’t want to spend a lot of money, and they are definitely interested in the carbonated space,” says Moll.
They did a lot of experimenting to develop the best products for this audience, starting with the Line 39 wines that their customers already love. “Flavors have to be married well,” says Moll. “Wine is the hero here. We ended up with something that is very thoughtful and not sweet.” Adding sparkling water dilutes the alcohol, so they carefully added natural flavors to complement the wine. The rosé has essence of strawberry, the pinot noir sports black cherry and the sauvignon blanc, a squeeze of lemon. Moll says they’ve created a satisfying beverage you can drink a couple of without guilt.
The fact that you can reseal the bottle is a big bonus over cans, frankly. These Line 39 beverages hold their spritz and flavor for several days in the fridge, fit nicely in a purse and are super refreshing. All of them got high marks from our tasting panel.
Scheid is a master of creating new brands to slot into marketing niches yet untapped, and sometimes not yet created. Their “Sunny With a Chance of Flowers” brand has a bright future, especially from a marketing standpoint. The packaging is beautiful and directly appealing to the target market in the “better for you” (BFY) segment.
We asked Heidi Scheid, Executive Vice President, Scheid Family Wines, how they arrived at the 9% alcohol “sweet spot.” She told us, “We did a lot of taste trials to arrive at 9%. A LOT. I wish we had kept track of how many! We felt that we needed to be below 11% to be considered ‘low alcohol,’ so we did trials between 7% and 11%. We also wanted to be consistent across the brand and not have different alcohol levels for different varietals within the Sunny line-up. At 9% abv, the wines across the board were flavorful, aromatic and varietally correct and still retained the mouthfeel and texture that makes wine such a wonderful experience.”
Truth be told, these are quite acceptable as lower alcohol examples of real wine that actually tastes like wine, if a bit on the lighter side.
We wondered if Scheid started with wines that were already vinified and then were de-alc’d to the desired level, or did they pick earlier to start with naturally lower alcohol levels?
“Flavors are made in the vineyard and we believe we get a much better wine by allowing the grapes to hang on the vine to reach full flavor potential before harvesting,” says Scheid. They are vinified to dryness in exactly the same way that all Scheid wines are, but a portion of the alcohol is removed using a two-stage filter.
We were curious about who did the tastings of these wines: were there outside consumers involved? Not this time, Scheid told us, due to Covid.
“Our extensive tastings were done internally. We would have loved to have consumer involvement, and plan to do consumer tastings in the future, but unfortunately due to Covid, we haven’t been able to do that. Internally we evaluated the Sunny wines just as we would a regular alcohol wine, rigorously assessing aromatics, flavor, varietal character, acidity, color, mouthfeel, texture, structure and balance. We also taste Sunny with a Chance of Flowers alongside other ‘better for you’ wines on a regular basis to see what other wineries are doing and how Sunny is positioned among the competition.”
How much flavor people are willing to give up to have a lower alc beverage?
Scheid nailed it. “I think people want to have their cake and eat it too. At least I do! We went into making Sunny with a Chance of Flowers with the premise that it has to taste great….it has to taste like WINE….otherwise what’s the point? I personally look forward to having a glass of wine every evening; it’s the perfect way to segue from work mode to relaxed mode. I wanted a wine that allowed me to have a glass or two in the evening and still wake up early the next day feeling great.”
Like most wine drinkers, she wasn’t willing to give up flavor, mouthfeel, and texture, which are part and parcel of the wine experience. “After all, that’s why we drink wine! I’m pretty sure that’s universal for wine drinkers, so if we’re offering an alternative to a 14% abv wine, it has to hit the right notes to be successful.”
It’s a seemingly hard endeavor to strike all the notes of a healthier beverage, including low alcohol, lower calories and lower carbs. We wondered, what’s really most important to consumers?
Apparently, that’s a question Scheid and her team ask themselves all the time. “The honest answer is, I’m not sure, but I think it’s a combination of all three. As a new category, the ‘Better for You’ segment is a bit confusing as there really isn’t a definition of what qualifies a wine to make the claim that it’s ‘better for you’. Does the wine need to be low alcohol, low calorie, low sugar (and how does one define ‘low’)? Does it matter how it’s made? We believe the answer is ‘yes’ to all of the above and why Sunny with a Chance of Flowers is the category leader.”
Scheid insists that Sunny is the real deal, being zero sugar, just 85 calories per 5 oz serving, 9% alcohol, and certified sustainable, a box not many in the category can check. You could make the case that Sunny is the only lo alc option that delivers on the “better for you” proposition both with what’s inside the bottle and how it’s made. Scheid says what really sets Sunny apart in the category is that it delivers on what a consumer would expect in a better for you wine. Plus, it’s family-owned, certified sustainable, powered by renewable energy and sourced from a premium AVA.
The current Sunny wines include 2019 Positively Sauvignon Blanc, 2018 Positively Chardonnay and 2018 Positively Pinot Noir, all $16.99 per 750ml bottle. They offer a great choice for anyone looking for real wine flavor in a lower alcohol format. The pinot noir was a panel favorite, with the sauv blanc a close second. De alc’d chardonnay is a really hard one to nail. Scheid says they plan to add more products to the Sunny lineup in the future.
Advice from this dyed in the wool wine drinker? Wine spritzers are definitely more fun than de-alc’d wine in general, but if you’re looking for lower alcohol alternatives with a real wine flavor experience, consider varieties that naturally lean in the direction of bright and crisp, like Picpoul, Riesling, Verdelho, Vermentino and Albarino. And generally not from California, because it’s just a little too sunny here to produce wines that fall naturally in that camp. Otherwise, be prepared to compromise.
Alas, you really can’t have your cake and eat it too.