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Winemakers Bet Big on Low-Calorie, Low-ABV Bottles

When White Claw and other hard seltzers scratched their way onto the scene in 2016, the wine industry was thrown on its heels. The new category exploded almost overnight, growing exponentially year-over year, unabated by even the pandemic.

What was a $41 million industry five years ago is projected to exceed $2.5 billion in 2021, and it may reach $14.5 billion by 2027. That’s still nowhere near wine’s more than $330 billion annual impact, but every bite hurts.

A woman drinking Champagne on a boat

Hard seltzer appeals to younger generations especially, due to its lower alcohol and calorie content, which aligns with the modern wellness zeitgeist. Suddenly, wine, long considered the healthier alternative to booze and even beer, not to mention a critical component of the purported life-extending “Mediterranean diet,” didn’t look so fit.

“Hard seltzer made it look like wine was in the ‘too much’ category, which we’ve never had to contend with,” says Jessica Tomei, winemaker for Cupcake Vineyards. “Hard seltzer started to enter the space that wine had enjoyed for many years.”

Last year, Cupcake, owned by The Wine Group, joined a handful of major producers unveiling alcohol reduced, low-calorie wines.

Cupcake’s is called LightHearted. Trinchero makes Mind & Body, Kim Crawford has Illuminate, and Yellow Tail offers Pure Bright. They join a parade of wine-based seltzers from large wineries like Del Mar (Trinchero), Line 39 (O’Neill) and Bubble Butt (WarRoom Cellars). All are part of what’s being called the “better for you” category of wines.

Sales were immediately brisk. “There’s a great depletion rate,” says Tomei. “Now we’re restocking the shelves.”

The Cense bottle lineup
The Cense bottle lineup / Photo courtesy of Precept Wine

That was confirmed by Heidi Scheid, whose family’s winery, Scheid Family Wines, introduced its low alcohol brand, Sunny with a Chance of Flowers, last year.

“It’s probably too early to say that consumers are going to turn low-calorie wine into the next White Claw,” says Scheid, who enjoys being able to have two glasses of Sunny on a Tuesday night and still wake up at 5:00 a.m. “But I do think ultimately that it’s going to be a very successful category.”

Though many winemakers make alcohol adjustments for balance, the concept of removing alcohol from wine extends to at least 1992, when Trinchero released its nonalcoholic Fre wine. In the last five years or so, the global corporation WW (formerly Weight Watchers) began to ask wineries whether calories could be reduced through less alcohol.

Picnic with wines from Sunny with a Chance of Flowers.
Photo courtesy of Sunny with a Chance of Flowers

“Weight Watchers realized that one of the top two most-searched for items from their four million members was wine, and there was no wine in this category,” says winemaker Haydn Mouat of Precept Wine, whose chief innovation officer, Phil Hurst, took on the challenge in 2017. The result was Cense, which features Weight Watchers “Smart Points” nutritional value system on each label. The company makes flavored wine spritzers now, too.

Mouat says those first labels didn’t wear their diet status so loudly. “We were saying that these wines are good enough to be served without drawing attention to the fact that they were low-calorie,” he says.

To create these low-alcohol and -calorie wines, most producers employ spinning cone technology, where one-third of a wine batch is run through a vacuumized, low-temperature column that releases ethanol. Flavor and aroma compounds also evaporate, but they can be captured and returned to the wine.

The process reduces the wine to around 4% alcohol by volume (abv). The treated wine is then blended with the rest of the batch. The finished product has about 9% abv, whereas most traditional wines range from 11–13% abv.

A woman on the beach drinking Mind Body Cabernet Sauvignon
A woman on the beach drinking Mind & Body Cabernet Sauvignon / Photo courtesy of Trinchero Family Estates

Scheid’s Sunny with a Chance of Flowers, however, uses a reverse osmosis process, a two-stage filtration used commonly for minor alcohol adjustments.

“We felt that it expressed that varietal character that we love to strive for in our wines,” says Casey DiCesare, winemaker for Sunny With a Chance of Flowers. “We found it to be gentler. It takes a while to do, but I think the end result is totally worth it.”

When it comes to potential, the “why” of this movement may be more important to understand than the “how.” And that comes down to the fascination with health and wellness.

“The way you perceive wellness is going to affect everything you choose to put in your body, or not put in your body,” says Brie Wohld, vice president of marketing at Trinchero Family Estates, which produces a Pinot Grigio, Cabernet Sauvignon and rosé under the Mind & Body brand. “We didn’t call it ‘six-pack abs’ wines. We called it Mind & Body because we think the consumer is really thinking about ideas of mindfulness.”

Moderation can be key to that health, an appealing notion to younger generations who enjoy nonalcoholic drinks and celebrate permanent or intermittent sobriety.

Modern wine drinkers may also be more concerned about self-control than their predecessors.

“You can’t ignore the impact of social media,” says Wohld. “When I went to college, if you didn’t behave yourself, the worst case was that someone had a bad story. It wasn’t captured in perpetuity on social media channels for people you don’t even know. Looking out of control isn’t cool.”

Bullish on these “better for you” wines, Wohld doesn’t believe they will damage the traditional wine market.

“If anything, we are creating a space for more people to be engaged in the wine category,” she says. “You don’t have to completely abstain from alcohol to be consistent with the idea of a healthy lifestyle.”