Reduced Alcohol Vintage of Future


Wine is defined as the fermented juice of grapes, used as an alcoholic beverage or in cooking, often found in religious ceremonies and as an accompaniment to food.

But is it wine if it has no alcohol in it? That is, what do you call a liquid made from crushed grapes that are fermented and then the resulting “wine” is “de-alcoholized” by one process or other? Can it still be called wine if it is fermented traditionally and then the alcohol removed?

Then again, what is a product called if it is a blend of wine with alcohol and wine that has been de-alcoholized? A wine cooler is generally considered to be a product separate and distinct from wine because it is made from wine and fruit juice, or some other additive. So what is wine plus de-alcoholized wine called?

This issue may not be high on your list of “need to know,” but Mike Houlihan needs to know, and the issue may become more meaningful to all of us in the coming years.


There was a wave of interest in lower-alcohol wines briefly in the 1970s, and the subject is rearing its head once again partially because of concerns over drunken driving. This past Jan. 1, a law went into effect in California lowering the blood-alcohol level above which one is considered legally drunk. The level went from .1% to .08%, meaning that it now takes less alcohol to get a person drunk in the eyes of the state.

The California Department of Motor Vehicles says that a 150-pound person could have only two drinks in an hour to stay below the new standard. However, physicians are divided over that statistic, with some studies showing that wine consumed with food acts significantly differently in the body than a martini on an empty stomach.

Still, all wine drinkers I know are concerned over the new legal blood-alcohol level, and many folks are looking for alternatives in their life styles and in the beverages they consume.

Some people are so concerned about this trend toward neo-temperance that they have taken the extremist view: abstinence. You wouldn’t catch a dedicated wine lover making such a move, of course, but wine lovers do want to act sanely without having to seal their lips from the Bordeaux and bubbly.


For such people, the designated driver is often not a solution. I know of no wine lover whose spouse would agree to a Perrier in place of a Dom Perignon. (Especially these days when even Perrier can be recalled for contamination.)

That’s why Houlihan, the brains behind the Barefoot Cellars wine label, thinks he has a better idea. It’s called a Reduced Alcohol Wine, and he capitalizes the phrase because he thinks of it as a category of wine--a combination of wine and de-alcoholized wine that carries a much lower alcohol than standard table wine.

Houlihan’s new product will be shipped to market in about a month. It is called Barefoot Beau, a 1989 Gamay Beaujolais made by a proprietary method. It contains 5% alcohol and is intended as an alternative to those people who would like to consume wine with meals but want to limit their total alcohol consumption.

The product, to sell for $5 a bottle, will be released about April 1; Lucky supermarkets in Southern California will be among the first to carry the beverage.

The product will carry the words Reduced Alcohol Wine on its label, but control over this product, for label approval purposes, is with the U. S. Food and Drug Administration because the wine has less than 7% alcohol. (The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms controls labeling of products over 7% alcohol. In addition, BATF regulates all wine products under the Internal Revenue Code for tax purposes.)

Who controls the labeling of this product is of concern to Houlihan as well as other potential makers of products like this because the labeling determines whether the product will be regulated as a wine type, complete with varietal scrutiny, and other issues. Houlihan hopes BATF gains regulatory control.

However, a spokesman for BATF said he hoped an agreement could be worked out so BATF could gain control over all Reduced Alcohol Wines because it made no sense for a product that clearly was made entirely from wine to be pushed into another agency--especially one that doesn’t adhere to the same regulations that BATF has on its books.

Even though the rules may be a bit more stringent, Houlihan wants the product to be regulated by BATF, to insure the high quality of such products. He points to the wide variation in wine coolers, which is regulated by FDA, not BATF.


The issue of lower-alcohol wines is sure to become an important one in the coming years because of drunk driving and health concerns and one of those who is keenly aware of the issue is Dr. Ralph Kunkee, professor of enology at the University of California at Davis.

Kunkee and UC Davis researcher Linda Bisson have done work in the last few years on yeast strains that produce lower-alcohol wines.

It’s possible to stop the fermentation of grape juice before a wine gets to the 12% alcohol that is standard for table wine. However, the resulting wine would have residual sugar in it, making it unsuitable as an accompaniment to food.

But Kunkee said one possible way to make wines with lower alcohol is to develop yeasts that convert a portion of the sugar in the grapes not to alcohol but to glycerol and various acids.

Dick Arrowood, one of the state’s top wine makers at Chateau St. Jean and his own Arrowood winery, said it’s possible to make table wines with lower alcohol than 13%, but the result is often a wine that is biologically unstable.

“You can stabilize (low alcohol wine) with low pH, but then you’d have a wine that is so tart it’d take the roof of your mouth off,” he said. He noted that alcohol adds depth to the body of the wine, and that low-alcohol Chardonnays are usually thin and watery.

“When you make sweet wines with only 6% or 7% alcohol, even though you don’t have the perception of thinness, you have this overbearing feel of syrupiness; the nose doesn’t give it away, but there’s usually a big hole in the middle. Maybe alcohol doesn’t have flavor, but it sure does have texture. The key is to hit that happy medium.”

J. Lohr Winery in San Jose, with its Ariel brand, and Vintner’s International’s St. Regis have made some strides with wines that have been de-alcoholized by various means. The wines are marginally successful, though they don’t resemble wine very closely.


One north coast wine maker who has looked into non-alcoholic wines such as Ariel and St. Regis said, “The trouble with the removal of alcohol is that no system yet developed takes away only the alcohol. It also removes flavors and aromatics, so you have to use highly flavored varietals such as Gewurztraminer or Muscat so the stuff tastes like something.”

In 1986, two of the original Ariel products were made with 3.2% and 6.5% alcohol, but a winery spokesman said they were a commercial flop and were eventually pulled from the market.

“What became painfully clear to us is that the average consumer doesn’t know what the alcohol is in any wine product,” said Barry Gnekow, wine maker for Ariel. He said those who desire less alcohol simply drink quality wine in a smaller amount and the thinner taste of the lower-alcohol product was too much of a drawback.

Gnekow said authorities in Sweden are testing 5% alcohol Rieslings as a means to cut down on alcoholism, but still sales of it have been less than expected.

One of the first low-alcohol concepts occurred in the mid-1970s when the late Ed Friedreich, then wine maker at San Martin Winery, developed Soft Chenin Blanc and Soft Riesling, wines with 7% alcohol. They were attractive and popular for about two years. But the wines were sweet and soon the category faded.

It was replaced, in the early 1980s, with light wines, in which lower alcohol and lower calorie count were emphasized. At one point, Paul Masson dominated the category, and sales approached 100,000 cases. But after a time, light wines also faded in popularity.

One of the most attractive low-alcohol wines on the market today is a 7% alcohol wine made by Santino Winery in Amador County. The 1988 Santino Muscat Canelli ($6.75) has about 7% residual sugar, making it fairly sweet, but the very high acidity in the wine makes it delightfully refreshing, especially as an accompaniment to fresh fruit for a light dessert.

In Southern California, the wine is marketed by Distinctive Wines in San Diego, and in Los Angeles by Jim Wallace & Associates and by Western International.

Wine of the Week: 1983 Nervi Gattinara ($11)--Stylish red wine made from the Nebbiolo grape, with cherry/tar aromas and a slight peppery quality that goes beautifully with Italian food. The wine probably will be seen at less than $10 in most shops, an excellent buy, and a wine that will probably age nicely too.