The archaeological record now dates the first fermentation of grapes back to the early Neolithic period, more than 8,000 years ago. Viticulture could be even older than those ancient dregs, but it’s safe to say that humans have been making alcoholic wine for a very, very long time.
Attempts to produce wine without alcohol, however, fall under recent history. Creative churchgoers hoped to avoid inebriation in religious rites, while business-minded beverage makers aimed to reach would-be customers whose doctors advised abstinence. Like those first experimenters, today’s nonalcoholic wine producers are trying to use contemporary technology to catch lightning in a bottle, minus the booze. Thanks to shifts in the way we drink—market researchers report that younger generations are buying less alcohol, 22 percent of consumers are interested in drinking less, and teetotalers are no longer no-alcohol drinks’ primary consumers—getting the formula right is well worth the effort.
The process of removing alcohol from wine
America’s first alcohol-free approximation of wine sidestepped fermentation altogether. In 1869, a New Jersey dentist and prohibitionist named Thomas Bramwell Welch pasteurized unfermented Concord grape juice as a non-intoxicating “wine” that could be used for communion at his Methodist church. That zero-proof beverage found its way to congregations across the country—and launched America’s processed fruit juice industry. (Until 1890, Welch’s Grape Juice was known as Dr. Welch’s Unfermented Wine.)
In 19th-century Germany, in turn, the Jung family of winemakers was looking to expand the market for their Rieslings; their matriarch and saleswoman, Maria, was losing clients who began to abstain for health reasons. Her son, Carl Jung—not to be confused with the Swiss psychoanalyst distilling the subconscious around the same time—hit upon a vacuum-distillation method that lowered alcohol’s boiling point from 80 degrees Celsius to below 35 degrees Celsius (around 95 degrees Fahrenheit), thus avoiding the “cooked” flavor that results from treatments at higher temperatures. As his 1913 U.S. patent reads, “[T]he object of my invention is the production of a non-alcoholic beverage having all the nature, appearance, and flavor, and in case of wine even the fine bouquet of the natural or original beverage and affording the same enjoyment, but without the exciting effects due to alcohol.” Carl Jung Wines now produces dealcoholized wine for drinkers in more than 25 countries.
The second pillar of contemporary dealcoholized winemaking developed in 1980s Australia, where food-chemistry entrepreneur Andrew Craig formed Flavourtech to produce his then-patent-pending invention. He designed a versatile technique that could extract essential oils from herbs and spices, recover aromas from instant coffees, manage the flavor of dairy products, and, as a marketing and advertising executive named Tony Dann came to find out, control the alcohol content in beverages.
Craig’s spinning cone columns remove volatile compounds from liquids—such as desirable aromatics coffee producers might want to preserve, or unpleasant notes farmers might want to remove from cream—with a combination of gentle steam heat and mechanical force. Substances poured into the top of a column pass over both stationary and spinning cones as they move downward; steam rising upward from the bottom of the column causes those volatile compounds to turn into gas, which is collected and set aside as the still-liquid portions of the substance pass out of the bottom of the column.
Dann saw the potential for using the technology to remove some of the alcohol in wine, a process that would come in handy in warmer regions where it can be difficult to produce products at an alcohol by volume (ABV) of 14 percent or lower. Higher temperatures lead to riper grapes with more sugar, explains Kayla Winter, an enologist and the director of U.S. services at BevZero (the company Dann founded as ConeTech in 1991). Dann established a facility to process wine for producers in Santa Rosa, California, and then others in Spain and South Africa. BevZero initially focused on reducing rather than eliminating wine’s booziness. “Historically we were just removing alcohol a few degrees,” Winter says. “In the U.S., specifically before 2018, you would have to pay more taxes if the wine was above 14 percent.”
To remove alcohol from wine with heat, the wine has to reach a boiling point, at which time alcohol becomes gas and separates from the rest of the liquid. “To do that just without any other factors would be heating the product way too high, and it would ruin the wine,” Winter explains. The long spinning-cone column puts the wine under a vacuum, which decreases the boiling point of ethanol. “So wine will go into a cone and, through the process of centrifusion, get sprayed out in a very thin film,” she adds. “So you have increased surface area, a vacuum decreasing the boiling point, and then heat all together [allowing] us to extract the alcohol without ruining and boiling the product.”
The spinning-cone process is superior to earlier means of thermal dealcoholization for a key reason: “We can do an essence strip,” Winters says. Essentially, this means that the first 1 percent of volatile aromas that get distilled off the wine—an essence that retains a lot of the native flavors—can be captured and then added back into the dealcoholized product. (Reverse osmosis—a dealcoholization process where a filter separates and retains wine’s tannins, pigments, flavor and aromatic components while allowing water and alcohol molecules to pass through—has also had promising results, but the spinning-cone column method of producing nonalcoholic wines is far more common among producers in the United States.)
Winemakers had an effective technique for reducing the alcohol in wine—and faced plummeting demand for it in 2018, when the U.S. Department of the Treasury’s Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) shifted its tax-break threshold to wines with an ABV of 16 percent or less. Two percentage points may sound like a measly difference, but 16 is much easier to hit with normal winemaking practices, Winter explains. BevZero then looked to develop a new customer base: makers who wanted to take their alcohol content all the way down to zero.
Creating a better product
Despite a few large domestic producers’ efforts in the ‘70s and ‘80s, consumers tended to associate mass-marketed nonalcoholic wines with Dr. Welch’s grape juice. “I’ve heard some of my colleagues refer to them as generation one for nonalcoholic wine and they were…great in that they were the first of their kind, but not a lot of people consider that generation premium,” Winter says, diplomatically. By 2018, the health and wellness movement was booming in the U.S., and people were starting to ask if BevZero’s technology could be used for nonalcoholic wine.
Entrepreneurs could and did. Julia Littauer, a certified sommelier who cofounded Sovi (Tagline: “Quality non-alcoholic wine. Yes, that’s a thing.”) with her husband, Alex, cites the emergence of high-quality nonalcoholic beer as inspiration for her products.
“In late 2019, after trying and really enjoying [Athletic Brewing Co.’s NA beers], we were like, ‘this needs to exist in wine, this is exactly what we’re looking for,’” says Littauer. She tested a lot of nonalcoholic wines that were on the market at the time and found them to taste like sweet grape juice. “In no world was that going to satisfy my craving for wine when I didn’t want the alcohol, because it just didn’t represent wine to me.”
Developing dealcoholized wines that appeal to the palate, it turns out, is time-intensive. It’s really hard to predict what a wine is going to taste like after you remove the alcohol, Littauer explains. “Sometimes they will be very thin, because when you’re taking out the alcohol you’re removing the body,” she says. “Sometimes the flavors will change, some [aromatic compounds] come through and some don’t.” Winter agrees: “Alcohol is tough, because it has flavor, it has weight, it has a burn, it has sweetness, and when you remove it, you lose all of those things.” In the case of Sovi’s red wine, Littauer has found balance in a combination of products. “We’ve had to do a lot of blending,” she says. “We want to balance tannins and oak notes and fruit, and we haven’t gotten to a place where just a single wine works perfectly.”
When you remove alcohol from beer, retaining the flavor is a different story. “You’re going from like five percent or seven percent down to zero [and] it doesn’t make that big of a difference,” Winter explains. “With wine, it could be 15 percent alcohol, and that gap is pretty noticeable.”
Many winemakers turn to additives after dealcoholization to address that gap. “Thankfully, it’s an FDA product, so we now have every ingredient that’s FDA certified at our disposal,” Winter says. “We have to look at those and see what we can add to these products to bring back mouthfeel and bring back the flavor. We haven’t found anything that can bring back the burn—at least, nothing that is safe to consume.”
Amanda Thomson, CEO and founder of Thomson & Scott, launched her Noughty alcohol-free sparkling chardonnay, sparkling rosé and still red wine in the UK in 2019—and the U.S. is now her fastest-growing market. “The less than 0.5 percent alcohol [in our dealcoholized wine] is from the flavor we build back into the wine,” she says. “We use different tannins, mannoproteins and very small doses of sugar to rebuild the body and structure of the wine to our exacting taste.”
Thomson was prepared for the skepticism she encountered at first: “Wine is a drinks category that is absolutely not known for innovation.” Conversion happens at the tasting—“actual liquid on the lips,” she says. Thomson & Scott produces both traditional and nonalcoholic drinks, and Thomson appreciates the differences between them; when it comes to her NA offerings, it’s a “comfortable alternative” that she’s striving for. “It won’t have the ‘burn’ that alcohol produces, but it’s produced with the same obsessional focus and passion that I applied to making my first Champagne,” she says. “And most importantly, [it] is balanced and delicious.”
Nonalcoholic wines find a spot on the shelf
Douglas Watters—founder of Spirited Away, the first nonalcoholic bottle shop in the United States—began putting liquid on lips in New York City in 2020. He outgrew his shoebox-sized storefront in a year, and transitioned to a larger space on Mott Street that now teems with customers and NA drinks. Two years in, nonalcoholic wines represent between a quarter and a third of his stock.
“All of the brands I sell are five or six years old at the most,” he says. “I think we do the industry a bit of a disservice when we compare it to the traditional wine and spirits industry, which has been around for hundreds, thousands of years.”
Pitting new nonalcoholic wines against traditional products is beside the point in an emergent industry characterized by incessant tinkering. “I would encourage anybody who hasn’t loved something they’ve tried to wait a year, [then] come back and give it another shot,” Watters says. That’s not just a figure of speech: “I will get a new shipment of an existing product, and I’ll try it and notice a significant improvement over the last batch.”
Lorelei Bandrovschi founded Listen Bar as an alcohol-free popup in New York in 2018 and now produces alcohol-free events and virtual classes. “For me, the alcohol-free world is more exciting when we’re not doing one-for-one substitutes and we’re occasion-driven rather than mimicking something specific.” She’s a matchmaker of sorts: Vinada’s zero-alcohol sparkling rosé, she notes, is ideal for brunch or summer-afternoon drinking.
To embrace the new direction, many producers of nonalcoholic beverages have chosen to offer their products in nontraditional packaging. “Both our sparkling wines were the first on the market to be offered in their single-size bottle offerings, which has been a tremendous advantage,” says Anika Sawni, cofounder of Grüvi, a Colorado-based producer of nonalcoholic wines and beers. That pioneering has paid off: “Our wines alone have seen 300 percent growth year to year,” she says. Single-serving cans are also popular across nonalcoholic wine brands; dealcoholized wine is more likely to spoil when oxidized than it is to age and mature in flavor, so the main reason for storing it in glass bottles—which are expensive to produce and ship—is aesthetics.
“We’re seeing a huge influx of new products, made in a variety of ways,” says Sawni. “I think it’s really exciting to be in the space now because there’s no ‘right’ way to do anything—everyone is being experimental and adventurous, which will just help the category continue to grow.”
Grüvi isn’t alone there—and they expect more company. “We will continue to see new entrants into the space of NA wine in the coming years as more and more people push the awareness and demand for it,” Sawni says. “We are starting to see retailers dedicate more shelf space for nonalcoholic options and the same with restaurants and bars creating sections on their menu for zero-proof options.”
The Adult Non-Alcoholic Beverage Association (ANBA) launched in December of 2021 to provide assets and resources to businesses across the category, from producers to wholesalers and beyond. “In the next two or three years it’s going to be interesting to see how it all settles in,” says CEO Marcos Salazar. He reports that the association has been working with major retailers, including CVS, that are looking to be destinations for nonalcoholic wine, beer, spirits and cocktails.
Nicole Hough, founder and editor in chief of AFter, a magazine debuting in December “for non-drinkers, the sober curious, and anyone evaluating their relationship with alcohol,” hopes nonalcoholic wines will evolve to a point “where producers are classifying by region or by grapes.” Each alcohol-free product should have its own specifications and differentiations. “We are doing an article about braising without alcohol for the magazine, so I have a chef working on some recipes with alcohol-free wine,” Hough continues. “Then I have a former sommelier who’s now in the alcohol-free space doing a pairing of each of those dishes with alcohol-free wines. I think that will be really interesting.”
Thirsty for more options
In 2019, BevZero processed under 20,000 gallons of wine for dealcoholization, and the segment accounted for less than 1 percent of its production volume; that percentage rose to 3 percent in 2020, 8 percent in 2021, and now 22 percent so far in 2022. The company expects to process more than 300,000 gallons of wine for nonalcoholic wine by the end of this year, and they support more than 20 nonalcoholic wine brands.
According to a Gallup poll released in August 2021, 60 percent of U.S. adults report drinking alcoholic beverages (down from 65 percent in 2019), and Americans consume an average of 3.6 alcoholic drinks per week (down from 4.0). That’s on the low end of what Gallup has recorded over the past two decades. At the same time, in 2021, the low- and no-alcohol category reached a total market value of more than $2 billion, according to the drinks-market analysis group IWSR; abstainers represent 23 percent of the customer base for that market, and people who want to reduce the amount of alcohol they drink represent 35 percent. Another market research firm, Fact.MR, estimated that global nonalcoholic wine sales reached $1.6 billion in 2021 and will double in the next decade.
Some researchers speculate that moderation among millennial and Gen Z drinkers is driving the NA industry’s explosive growth; others point to bracing headlines like those generated in 2018 when a much-cited meta-analysis in The Lancet reported that “the safest level of drinking is none.”
“We certainly don’t ask people why they’re [at Spirited Away], but a lot of people volunteer it, and what I’ve learned is that people have a million and one different reasons for drinking less,” Watters says. “I thought it was going to be a lot of people like me who were just kind of increasingly interested in health and fitness, people who are pregnant, and things like that, but I’m really discovering quite a broad range.”
NA winemakers, marketers and retailers speak of reevaluating what it means to celebrate—or what rituals should include, or how one defines relaxation and luxury. Perhaps the pandemic threw those considerations into stark relief for the rest of us. The category’s only certainty? Its future is full of possibilities.