Dry January has ended, but for many folks, whether Gen X moving into the moderation phase of life, or Gen Z, apparently already enlightened, nonalcoholic (NA) drinks remain a permanent fixture in their lives. That includes me, a longtime wine writer seeking to rotate nonalcoholic drinks into my lifestyle as a complement, not a substitute. NielsenIQ’s data shows the market for nonalcoholic beer, wine and spirits grew more than 20% last year — and more than 120% over the last three years. The market now sees almost $400 million in annual sales. That growth is expected to continue.
In search of products to stock in the pantry, I’ve spent the last eight weeks tasting craft nonalcoholic beer, spirit-free spirits, zero-alcohol wine, and ready-to-drink (RTD) cans and bottles. Of all the categories, I found wine faced the biggest hurdle in satisfying longtime oenophiles. I asked wine loving friends and professionals for their recommendations, and many responded with “I’m still looking.”
Fortunately, I was pointed in the direction of Rheingau producer Johannes Leitz, owner of Weingut Leitz and JJ LEITZ, the alcohol free company. Leitz has been leading the nonalcoholic wine industry in both innovations and vision with his zero percent EINS-ZWEI-ZERO line of dealcoholized wines, starting with Riesling, which remains my favorite NA tasted yet for its approximation of the original. Leitz took time to speak with Forbes about his vision for the industry which yes, includes a high-end line that could be indistinguishable from Grand Cru wines.
When and why did you decide to create NA wine? Did you have a personal stake in it?
It all started in 2015 when travelling through Norway. I met one of the most famous chefs, Odd Ivar Solvold from Sandefjord, who asked me for an alcohol-free grape juice as a pairing for one of his dishes. I told him that grape juice contains too much sugar to be the ideal choice. I promised to work on his request and we found a good dealcoholization partner. We were brave enough to do the first trial with a good base wine. The trial went well, and we sold it quickly.
The first two years were spent convincing our partners worldwide to work with our dealcoholized Riesling (our first product); but with each new production and each new season, we felt that we gained more and more friends. Last year we included the first dealcoholized Pinot Noir in our portfolio, and we know that it is just the next big step on this journey. It’s such a great challenge and we’re very enthusiastic to work on it and eventually, produce one day a range of products indistinguishable from real wines.
What are the challenges to creating something that’s evocative of the real thing, including any differences in viticulture, vinification plus the removal of alcohol?
Alcohol is the most important carrier of taste when it comes to wine. If it’s missing, you must find ways to replace it. Wine is one of the most judged product in the world. People are arranging their lives for wine: they’re studying wine and living for wine. So, for producers of dealcoholized wines it means that the expectation is just as high as for ‘real wine.’
What is the process for removing alcohol and do you think it’s the best method?
We´re using two different methods: the so-called vacuum distillation and the spinning cone column, which also works with a vacuum. Both methods deliver very good results, and we don’t see any deleterious difference. The decision on which system to use is based on past good experiences. We decided not to purchase our own machinery for economic reasons while always having access to state-of-the-art-technology through service providers, or our dealcoholization-partners.
Do you envision better methods in the future?
We are working with our research and development department on permanent refinements, especially on taste refinements. For example, the implementation of alcohol for taste is found in bakery products, soft drinks, even soups. These products are a risk for people who shouldn’t consume alcohol at all, such as people who are on medication, or pregnant women. So, there are broad implications for improving the taste of any product for which it’s desirous to eliminate alcohol.
Why do you think the NA wine movement is growing and NA products in general?
Modern people have more self-consciousness in their choice of products. Years ago, dealcoholized wines had a very bad reputation and the quality in general was very poor. These two facts created a bad reputation around the category. At the time, people would rather drink bad wines than choose the alcohol-free alternative in restaurants and bars.
I spoke with women who drank during pregnancy only water of fruit juices (which also contain minute amounts of alcohol, by the way, yet without being labeled) because the restaurants didn’t carry any well-made dealcoholized wines and other alcohol-free products on their lists. It is so important to speak about the whole category: it´s not only dealcoholized wines, it´s also other alcohol-free drinks, which make our lives easier because we now have more options for sober living. This is in my opinion the reason for the success!
What have you observed as far as growth and demand since the launch of your EINS-ZWEI-ZERO Riesling, which is the dealcoholized version of EINS-ZWEI-DRY Riesling?
The market entry of our dealcoholized version, EINS-ZWEI-ZERO Riesling, of our most important wine label EINS-ZWEI-DRY Riesling (regular wine), is a story of success. Since we started, we have increased production by almost 6000 percent from 2016 to the end of 2022, and this is just for one of our 8 core SKUs. In general, we´re happy with our current production, because we see growing acceptance with feedback from clients who take time to write us and tell us what they like and don’t like. It’s an interaction with our customers that we don’t want to miss.
What feedback have you had about your wines?
People from all over the world have reached out to us based on our regular portfolio which includes the brands EINS-ZWEI-DRY Riesling and DRAGONSTONE Riesling. This committed base and our reputation, might be one of the reasons why so many people were eager to try our dealcoholized products. When I started in 1985, we had just a 2.5-hectare sized property. Today, we are working on a 160-hectare plantation and we´re ranked amongst the top 30 producers in Germany. Now, we’re seeing former wine customers switch completely to dealcoholized products for health reasons. The feedback in general was always positive and has encouraged me to carry on. My mission has been always to bring a part of my daily work to the various wine lovers all over the world, with alcohol and nowadays without!
Personally, I found the Riesling to be closest to the real thing with the Chardonnay second. The Pinot Noir was a stretch for me.
Thank you for your feedback! The Riesling and the Chardonnay have been dealcoholized with the vacuum distil and the Pinot Noir with a spinning cone column. For us, it’s a challenge to create a good, dealcoholized Pinot Noir because regular red wines are “living” mostly because of their alcohol strength. We need to work harder for a good, dealcoholized Pinot Noir because the gap in taste and structure compared to the original or ‘real’ version, is larger. But to be honest, we are already working on new trials, which seem to be very promising (ZERO-POINT-FIVE Pinot Noir).
Why is dealcoholized red wine more challenging to craft than white?
It’s all about the strength of alcohol and the ripeness of the grapes. Both are very hard to display with dealcoholized red wines. In white wines, we have acidity and minerality, which are very delicate but much easier to define. The goal, as I said previously, is to minimize the gap as much as we can, but we should not forget that the methods are based on thermal dealcoholization. Once people understand that dealcoholized products are not yet in the same category as regular wines, it will be much easier to accept them as they are. The expectation won´t be as high as it is now, because we are working in our own category.
Should the NA wine category eventually grow to include sophisticated products meant to mirror the real thing?
Good question! The production of dealcoholized wines is very technical and we´re using modern equipment to achieve the best results. Once the producers of NAs understand that the quality of the base wine is one of the major reasons for the
quality of the result, we will also find more and more products on the market which will be very hard to distinguish from a ‘real wine.’ We have already made very promising trials and will come up soon with some smaller batches of high-end dealcoholized products.
Or is the goal to simply create something pleasant and reminiscent of wine?
No, we want to go all the way to the top – that´s our mission!
Without alcohol, can NA wine even come close to drinking something as complex as a Grosses Gewächs? Aside from the question of wasting the fruit on NA, though there could be a small but important, to wit, higher paying market for that in the future?
This is exactly the market we want to work on. It´s a huge opportunity to make more people familiar with the category, and when the quality gets better, hope they’re willing to pay for even better quality. We don´t want to produce mediocre products. I have no doubt this is the future of the NA category. There will be high-end products available, so, essentially, a dealcoholized Grand Cru. Unfortunately, when that time comes, the law currently does not allow us to market sober Grand Crus because of the protection of origin and the status of ‘real wines.’
Anything else you want to add about the challenges and opportunities for NA wine and projections for where it’s heading in the future?
I hope that consumers will spend their money on better, sustainable, and fair produced products rather than buying wine without an identity and of poor quality. Sometimes, if we want to live a healthier life, we must accept compromise and that compromise is not always the cheapest option.