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Fooling the Taste Buds : No-Alcohol Wine Is in the Wings

July 07, 1986|BRUCE KEPPEL | Times Staff Writer

FRESNO — Richard Carey poured some Gewurztraminer into a wine glass, swirled it and bent over to sample the spicy aroma before taking some into his mouth to assess the taste of a drink that he thinks could become a major new kind of "adult" beverage: wine without alcohol.

Carey, a researcher at Cal State Fresno's Viticulture and Enology Research Center here, has developed a means of reconstituting the 1% of wine that is not water or alcohol in such a way as to "fool the taste buds" into thinking they have experienced alcohol that is not there.

Extracting the alcohol changes the character of the wine, Carey explained in an interview, but "food chemists" can reconstitute the flavor elements to produce a drink that is, he said, "non-cloying, refreshing, pleasant and complements food." De-alcoholized "wine" now on the market, such as Seagram's St. Regis, suffers from what he called "flavor problems" that so far have limited its appeal.

"This isn't juice and it isn't wine," Carey said of the alcohol-free Gewurztraminer in his hand. "It's a different class of beverage--a whole new adult-beverage class--that will go with food. I just haven't figured out what to call it." He said he expects to produce red and rose wine as well as whites.

California's wine-grape growers and the Fresno campus' California Agricultural Technology Institute support Carey's research at the center in hopes of finding ways to increase grape consumption. Thus, the de-alcoholized wines being produced here on an experimental basis could enlarge what is becoming a powerful trend toward consumption of lighter, lower-calorie alcoholic beverages.

The trend shows up most dramatically in wine coolers--already a global phenomenon, even though the first of them, California Cooler, appeared in a very limited way only in late 1981 but picked up momentum quickly over the next year.

By 1983, however, 3.5 million cases with a retail value of $75 million were sold, most of it California Cooler. Sales increased in 1984--the first year that the citrus-flavored, carbonated wine drink was widely available--to 15.3 million cases worth $300 million. Last year, sales topped 40.8 million cases, valued at $800 million.

That amounts to about a billion bottles of the relatively low-alcohol beverage--about four bottles per person in the United States, observed Eileen Fredrikson, partner in the San Francisco wine consulting firm of Gomberg, Fredrikson & Associates.

"We're looking at a market that continues to be running far ahead of last year," Fredrikson said. Through April, more than 120 brands of coolers were on the market, selling at a pace 78% ahead of the same period in 1985 and all containing 5% to 6% alcohol, about half that of table wines and about the same as most beers.

But coolers and de-alcoholized "wine" are not the only indications of a trend that some have called "the new temperance." Some others:

- San Jose-based Mirassou Winery introduced Pastel this spring as a low-alcohol White Zinfandel blended (but not diluted, the company insists) with the unfermented but naturally tart juice of French Colombard wine grapes. Another San Jose winery, J. Lohr, is producing another low-alcohol wine that it calls Ariel.

- Seagram is offering what it describes as a dry wine cooler, Seagram's Golden Wine Cooler, which it hopes will appeal to the taste of "traditional wine drinkers who are looking for a cooler of quality with a sophisticated wine taste."

- The first spirit-based coolers were introduced in Canada last August by Seagram, which sold 25,000 cases of rye-whiskey cooler, then launched two vodka coolers and a tropical rum cooler--all similar in alcohol content to the wine-based coolers.

- Pommay, imported from Canada and containing 4% alcohol, is the first cooler to be made from fermented fresh apple juice that is clarified, then lightly carbonated.

- Warteck beer from Switzerland is brewed from the start without producing alcohol.

- Meier's Sparkling Chablis is described as an alcohol-free beverage made from grape juices with no sugar added.

The common thread among these beverages is their low level of alcohol, ranging from virtually zero to 5% to 6.5%.

"Most cooler producers have opted for sweet and carbonated blends of white wine and citrus fruit flavors," according to Impact International, a New York-based publication that tracks global trends in beverage consumption. "These brands have proven doubly appealing to youthful, health-conscious consumers. Socially, they have been accepted as moderate, even healthy indulgence, while practically they offer their essentially active consumer profile a compromise against increasingly stringent drunk-driving laws.

"The young professional middle class, with a significant female bias, provided the main contribution to the additional 30 million cases sold in the United States last year, giving U.S. producers a welcome 202% increase in sales," Impact International reported.

Global Phenomenon

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