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A Hot Take on the Great Uprise of Non-Alcoholic Wine

The buzz on no buzz

Trends in the alcoholic beverage space come and go like yearly harvests. In the last few years we’ve seen wines aged in bourbon barrels [gross], the rise of piquette [weird], the hyper-localization of beer [very cool], and the fast ascent of craft distilled spirits [fascinating]. There is one trend, however, that is affecting wine, beer, and spirits alike: the rise of non-alcoholic beverages.

Non-alcoholic [often referred to as NA] drinks are a class of beverages that would normally contain alcohol, but instead were crafted without it or have gone through a process to have the alcohol removed [more on that in a moment]. NA products have been on the market for years, but recent advancements in quality as well as an increase in demand has lit a fire under the sector.

NA beer and spirits

In the 1920’s, “near beer” was made by boiling off alcohol in response to Prohibition laws. Consequently [and not surprisingly], this led to “needle beer,” which involved illegally injecting alcohol back in. Years later, NA beer had another moment when some less-than-fantastic options underwhelmed drinkers: O’Doul’s [1990] became marginally popular, while Miller Sharps [1989] and Coors Cutter [1991] were mostly known for being very low quality versions of macro-brews. 

The craft brewing world only recently took notice of the increased demand for NA products, giving rise to new NA-only breweries like Athletic and Best Day, as well as expanded NA offerings from established craft brewers such as Lagunitas and Brew Dog. Spirits and wine soon followed, with brands like Seedlip and Proxies leading the charge.

We recognize the potential value of NA bevs and would like to find a place for an NA RedThumb wine. But like a restaurant boasting a 9-page menu where much is offered but nothing is actually good, we aren’t looking to expand the RedThumb lineup just to do so. Our standards are our guideposts. If any wine, NA or not, doesn’t meet those standards, we’re not comfortable selling it. 

Three ways to remove alcohol from wine

Most of the NA products on the market start as normal alcoholic beverages, either fermented or distilled in [mostly] common ways. After that, they go through one of several methods for removing alcohol from the finished product. There have been countless articles written on the quality of these various NA offerings, but not much discussion about how these products are made. Since we’re all about transparency, we thought we’d dig in and see what’s happening under the hood.

  1. Reverse osmosis is one of the most common methods of making NA wines. Using high pressure pumps, wine is passed through a membrane which filters everything except for the water and alcohol. Tannins and other compounds [which contribute color and flavor] are held back and later remixed with just the water. Like any other filtering process, it isn’t an exact science. Many producers who use this method will go one step further and slightly tweak the removed bits before adding the water back to the mix.
  1. Vacuum distillation involves heating the wine in a vacuum chamber, allowing the alcohol to evaporate without actually cooking the wine. However, this process can take several hours during which the wine is held at 85-95 degrees Fahrenheit. At this temperature, we’re likely past the point of no return.
  1. Spinning cone columns is very popular with American winemakers who claim the process preserves wines’ distinctive aromas. Wine is passed through a centrifuge two times; the first pass removes the volatile compounds that add flavor and aroma, and the second removes the alcohol. The liquid that remains is then remixed with the compounds removed from the first pass.

NA wine: unofficially not natural

If these sound like intensive processes, you’re correct. This is some high-intervention winemaking, using an amount of weird science we’re not totally comfortable with. While there’s no uniform definition of “natural wine,” we believe that its production should use simpler, more traditional methods. Wines that go through any of these processes should no longer be considered “natural,” regardless of how the grapes were grown. And that’s a sticking point for us. Yes, there are ways of making natural NA beverages that will satisfy those looking to avoid alcohol in their drink. We think the processes used by Seedlip and Proxies, where no alcohol is ever created, are far superior. These NA beverages yield much better results than overly processing a traditional alcoholic beverage. 

Adding a non-alcoholic wine to the RedThumb lineup isn’t in the cards today, but things can change. We’re always listening and keeping our eyes open for improvements to the process, as long as the end result is a delicious wine, made naturally.