Could nonalcoholic wine be the toast of the town?

Winemakers are jumping on the sober bandwagon, helped along by young drinkers, climate change and something called a ‘spinning cone’

(Photo by Nicole Morrison for The Washington Post; prop-styling by Bessie Lacap)
9 min

SANTA ROSA, Calif. — Nonalcoholic beer is having a renaissance. Booze-free cocktails are all the rage. But wine, that most rarefied of libations, has been a little slower to the sober-curious party.

Making a good-tasting, zero-proof wine has been technically harder to pull off, and “there’s a fair amount of bias against nonalcoholic wines from wine purists,” said Dawn Maire, founder of nonalcoholic Starla Wines, which debuted in 2021.

But a slew of entrepreneurs think nonalcoholic wine is poised for an explosion, thanks to improvements in technology for “de-alcoholizing” wine and a growing interest in drinks that taste and feel grown up but aren’t boozy.

Between August 2021 and August 2022, total dollar sales of nonalcoholic wine, beer, cider and spirits in the United States grew more than 20 percent, according to NielsenIQ. Fact.MR, a market research firm, projects that sales of nonalcoholic wine will double by 2033 as people seek to reduce their alcohol consumption and manufacturers improve the taste and branding to give it the gloss of a premium, high-quality product.

Like the “flexitarian” (translation: sometimes-meat-eaters) market driving the new generation of alternative meat options, around 80 percent of these nonalcoholic beverage customers are alcohol consumers, not those who abstain, according to John Kelly, strategy director for beverages at Kerry in Ireland, which sells ingredients to the beverage industry.

Nonalcoholic beverages are still a small part of the total adult-beverage market, but according to Kelly, “this is not going away, it’s not a fad. Every beverage company I’ve talked to is either in this category or actively looking to innovate in this category.”

Beer has accounted for most of the sales in the nonalcoholic category, in part because it was the earliest to the trend, and in part because beer has lower alcohol to begin with and thus it’s not as heavy a lift to remove it. Nonalcoholic cocktails followed, with some of the nation’s foremost mixologist jumping on the bandwagon and “dry bars” popping up in night-life hot spots.

But alcohol-free wine has been a tougher sell. In a sense, there’s nowhere to hide. Beer has carbonation, a foamy head. Cocktails can have all kinds of bells and whistles: olives! cherries! juices! even frilly little paper umbrellas! Wine enthusiasts cherish the ritual of sniffing and swirling, scrutinizing a wine’s “legs” as they sluice down the sides of the glass, before sipping and looking for a wine’s varietal characteristics. Wines can be described with words like cigar box and “pencil lead,” or flinty or with hints of sandalwood — oenophiles can veer into what many might deem pretentiousness pretty quick.

Nonalcoholic wines have historically made up for a lack of alcohol by being sweet, a taste often associated with cheap wine. And in some ways, nonalcoholic wine would seem to run counter to current trends. In recent years, drinkers have been enthusiastic about “natural” wines fermented without additives and using traditional winemaking methods. When alcohol is removed, a wine is intensely manipulated, its flavor essence added back in, and often with additives that cover up the lack of alcohol.

In a recent column, Wine Spectator’s Alison Napjus offered nonalcoholic wines faint praise, describing the options as “more as alternative beverages with wine-like elements rather than wine substitutes.”

Much has been made of how millennials and Gen Z are drinking less. Drinking appears to be moderating across the board, but more young women describe themselves as drinkers now, according to Bourcard Nesin, who analyzes the beverage sector for RaboResearch. Government data shows that girls and young women are drinking more than their male counterparts.

Maire said that the vast majority of her customers are female because “women drink the most wine and buy the most wine.” She said that people came out of the pandemic with a focus on health and wellness, many with concerns about the effects of alcohol on their health. She said many millions of women each year are pregnant, nursing or are not drinking because of a health event or pharmaceutical contraindications, and this group is looking for nonalcoholic alternatives to enjoy.

Maire has her wines de-alcoholized at a company called BevZero in Santa Rosa, Calif. It’s the largest such facility in the United States, using a technological innovation called a spinning cone column.

Wine is poured into the top of a huge stainless steel column. Rotating cones use centrifugal force to transform the wine into a thin film. Steam is then pumped into the column from below. This allows a wine’s most volatile compounds (the essence that gives a product its flavor and aroma) to be pulled off and held elsewhere while the alcohol is removed from the remaining liquid. Then the essence is added back.

Spinning cones have become more important because of climate change. For decades, American wines had to be under 14 percent alcohol or they were taxed at a higher rate. Hotter temperatures and more sunny days meant higher sugars in the grapes and thus more alcohol in a finished wine, so California wineries increasingly employed companies to reduce the alcohol in a wine by a wee bit.

But in 2018 the federal tax law changed, and wines could all of a sudden be 16 percent alcohol without incurring higher taxes. BevZero and other alcohol-reduction companies lost customers.

“There was no longer a big need for alcohol-reduction services, and we lost 25 to 30 percent of our business,” said Matt Hughes, BevZero general manager. “So we started asking, ‘well, how low can we go [with the alcohol]?’”

And it was right around that time that the “sober curious” movement took off. BevZero and companies like it found a slightly new line of work.

Duncan Shouler, chief winemaker at Giesen Wines in New Zealand, says spinning cone technology is a big part of what is improving the quality of nonalcoholic wines. Giesen made wines with alcohol for more than four decades but was spurred to start making low- and no-alcohol wines after a companywide health and wellness initiative that included not drinking for a month.

Giesen has its own spinning cone, Shouler said, and has a team that does nothing but de-alcoholize wine, allowing them to tinker and refine. Shouler says the benefit of the technology is the ability to remove and capture a wine’s delicate aroma at low temperatures and pressure — Shouler describes that aroma “like a perfume of sauvignon blanc” — leaving a wine with no aroma and slightly lower alcohol.

“Then we can turn up the temperature because we don’t need to protect the aroma. We’re left with a wine with no alcohol and no aroma, then dose the de-alcoholized base wine with the aroma to bring back the character,” he said.

Customers’ shifting stylistic preferences have also enabled the production of more sophisticated nonalcoholic wines, Shouler said. Sauvignon blanc, especially that from Marlborough, New Zealand, is increasingly popular, prized for its citrusy acidity, forward fruit and asparagus-grassiness (some describe this as verging on cat pee, shockingly not a bad thing). These recognizable characteristics — grape varietal expression and geographic expression — are added back in and give what Ian Blessing, co-founder of All the Bitter, a nonalcoholic bitters company, calls “the adult flavor.”

Blessing, a former sommelier at the French Laundry in California, said that strong flavors like bitterness “remind you you’re drinking an adult beverage and wake up your receptors. We’ve had palate fatigue and are tired of overly sweet sodas and juices.”

Chris Marshall, the founder of Sans Bar, a nonalcoholic bar in Austin, says technology and a major infusion of investment capital are main reasons alcohol-free bars are viable now. He says since about 2017 there have been three waves of the non-alcohol movement. The first wave came with small, independent brands often making botanical mixers like Seedlip; in the second, he said, major alcohol companies started offering nonalcoholic analogs to their regular brands (Tanqueray’s nonalcoholic gin was one of the hottest beverages launches in the United Kingdom and Spain last year). He says the third wave is making nonalcoholic adult beverages ubiquitous at restaurants, in stadiums and on flights.

He said wine has been slower to blast off, in part because it’s technically difficult to do, “the way it’s hard to get a good plant-based porterhouse,” but also because the players are still mostly smaller wineries. Few household name brands have yet to launch zero-proof versions of their flagship wines, although long-standing California winery J. Lohr Vineyards & Wines makes nonalcoholic Ariel wines from estate grapes, and many big names such as Kendall-Jackson, Kim Crawford, Yellow Tail and Brancott Estate have eased into the space with low-alcohol products.

“Wine is starting to catch up, and there are major dollars moving toward this category,” Marshall said. He ticked off a couple of his faves: Seattle-based Joyus, which recently took home a gold medal at the San Francisco International Wine Competition, and Prima Pavé’s blanc de blancs sparkler (Marshall said no-alcohol sparkling wines are often successful, getting a boost from the bubbles). Many wine experts have said 2022 was a breakthrough year for nonalcoholic wines.

The Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau rigorously oversees the production, importation, wholesale distribution, labeling and advertising of alcoholic beverages. Nonalcoholic adult beverages are overseen instead by the Food and Drug Administration, and thus don’t have to abide by the same provisions. They can also be sold anywhere in grocery stores and other kinds of stores, expanding retail opportunities.

This added freedom can be confusing for consumers and store designers: Where should these products go? Next to their full-proof cousins or over by the soda pop? But restaurants, which have increasingly decided they need adult options for nondrinkers, have realized a lack of alcohol makes this category of beverages appropriate at lunchtime, brunch or even breakfast, expanding the windows for sales opportunities.