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No-and-low alcohol wines respond to wellness trends, consumer priorities

From the Napa Valley Wine Insider Digest: Sept. 25, 2021 series
  • Updated
Sovi - Rose

Napa Valley brand Sovi has launched its first non-alcoholic wine, a sparkling rose. 

A quick walk through any grocery store will lead you through a labyrinth of low-calorie, guilt-free alternatives to our favorite processed, frozen and canned foods. And now, even the wine aisle may be succumbing to the trend as alternative options become available. 

“I think there is an overall wellness trend in this country, and I think younger people’s access to information has led to expectation of information,” said Dale Stratton, president of the Wine Market Council.

The Wine Market Council is a member-led industry group, providing an avenue for research of interest-based on group inquiries. The WMC has been around since the late 1990s, with a member base of producers, growers, importers, distributors, retail shareholders and more. Using member dues, the group then funds third-party research in a couple of different ways.

“The first one we do every other year, and we do a major tracking study of the wine consumer. This gives us a very good view as to who the wine consumer is, how they act, what their demographics are, and it’s pretty in-depth,” said Stratton. “The second thing that we do is one-off pieces of research throughout the year based on input from our members, whatever hot topic that may be.”

A recent WMC one-off report looked into the role of wine in a “wellness lifestyle,” asking alcohol consumers a series of questions about their drinking habits, values related to wellness, and general perceptions of different types of alcohol.

“Some of the things that came out of this research were that there is a segment of the population who is definitely focused on moderating alcohol as a means to improve their health, and wine is part of that,” said Stratton.

One question asked targeted participants why they say they are drinking less wine than a couple of years ago, with responses broken into core wine drinkers, marginal wine drinkers, and infrequent wine drinkers. The most common answers from all groups were “exercising,” “work-life balance and managing stress,” “moderating or eliminating sugar intake,” and “reducing or avoiding artificial ingredients.”

Similarly, another question assessed which wellness attributes participants associated with different types of alcohol, including beer, hard seltzers, spirits and wine. Other than the option “none” — which had an overwhelming majority of responses for all questions — wine trailed behind seltzers and spirits in the “low calorie,” “low carb,” and “less sugar” categories.

However, for those dieting or “watching what they eat,” seltzer and wine tied as good options. Beer and seltzers were also both perceived as lower in alcohol than wine.

Interestingly, though, when asked which was the healthiest of the alcoholic beverages, wine took the lead over two-fold.

Low-alcohol and non-alcoholic wines have been showing up on the market in recent years, allowing brands to expand their repertoire to non-, infrequent or particularly conscious drinkers worried about additives or consumption. (Read as: hangovers.)

According to IWSR research, low-alcohol wine volumes more than doubled in 2020 in the United States. Internationally, some brands produce wines that just-so-happen to have low-ABV, while others like Kim Crawford Wines have created products specifically to fit this niche.

Here in Napa Valley, for example, St. Helena’s Mind & Body Wines sells low-calorie and low alcohol wine, and Napa’s new brand Sovi specializes entirely in non-alcoholic options.

“It was important for us to create these wellness-minded wines with fewer calories and less alcohol because consumers were asking for it,” said Brittany Haning of Mind & Body. “We pride ourselves on listening to consumers and giving them what they want, and consumers resoundingly were reaching out for a low-calorie, low-alcohol wine that better fits their lifestyles and helps them reach their wellness goals.”

This lifestyle compatibility component fits not only with fitness and exercise but to other environmental factors as well, according to WMC research. When asked for their reasons for drinking less alcoholic beverages a couple years ago, many participants attributed the decrease to not finding themselves in as many social situations, not enjoying drinking anymore, the fact that it makes them physically feel bad, due to a medical condition, or because of the presence of young children at home. For Sovi specifically, young mothers were expected to be the largest demographic of customers before launching their product.

“[But] the number one reason any of us consume what we consume is because we like the way it tastes, and so the key to these low-calorie wines is that they’ve been able to keep that taste,” said Stratton. “It can’t just be taking wine, adding some water in and making it thinner — That just doesn’t work.”

But Sovi co-owner, Julia Littauer, knows that she and her husband are up against a not-so-great reputation of odd-tasting, booze-free drinks.

“Not every wine that you remove the alcohol from is going to taste good,” she said. “It’s actually pretty difficult to find a wine that, when you remove the alcohol, it doesn’t just taste like watered-down grape juice.”

Littauer is a certified sommelier, though, so she says she is especially careful when picking and boiling down wines to dealcoholize them. She initially worked in the spirits industry, but ended up getting the wine bug and landing a gig at Corkbuzz wine bar in New York City.

She "realized I didn’t want to work in restaurants anymore because it's a tough life,” she said. ”I moved out here and landed in Sonoma, and I worked for a Treasury Wine Estates.”

Here she met her husband, who also worked for TWE in direct-to-consumer marketing. After putting a ring on it, they took a leap and attended Cornell’s Business School — the Johnson Graduate School of Management — and graduated side-by-side last year.

It was at Cornell that the idea for Sovi started to blossom.

“It was kind of a gradual realization while we were working on a different concept and talking to a lot of people,” she remembers, “Everyone was drinking less ... and there were so many reasons that they were drinking less.”

Neither Littauer or her husband Alex are non-drinkers, but the duo wanted to provide an option for those who are and even those that just want to avoid mid-day fuzziness after lunchtime drinks. She says that some people thought they were crazy when they pitched the idea of a non-alcoholic wine — and honestly, some still do — but there was also a subset of people who thought it was a really cool idea.

“We accepted from the beginning that this was never going to be for someone who is super serious about wine,” she said. Since launching the first Sovi wine, a sparkling rose, this March, they have been learning more and more about their clientele and what they are looking for.

While young moms are buying their wine as expected, so are older folks looking to skip the buzz and people not fond of the effects of drinking.

“It wasn’t as young of a demographic as we thought, but these are people who drink wine regularly,” she said.

This month Sovi is launching their to-be-announced second product, which will be a dealcoholized red blend, and the pair are looking forward to creating more and more varietals as they master the finicky process of de-boozing wine.

You can reach Sam Jones at 707-256-2221 and sjones@napanews.com

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Napa Valley wine industry reporter

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