Alcohol farm

Napa Valley Wine Pros Are Entering Controversial Territory: Alcohol-Free

During traditional working hours, second-generation Napa winemaker Jake Krausz helps run Napa Valley’s Arkenstone Vineyards. But when he’s not at the winery, he works at a side business that many in Napa’s wine industry would likely balk at: an online soft drink retail store.

When Krausz and his wife, Adrienne Stillman Krausz, a cocktail maker, decided to cut back on their alcohol intake before starting a family this year, they sampled dozens of non-alcoholic beverages. They wanted options that resembled the wine or cocktails they typically enjoyed at home — not just water or soda — but struggled to find anything they liked.

“We tried so many bad things,” recalls Jake Krausz.

But during the COVID-19 pandemic, they’ve noticed new innovations in the non-alcoholic beverage industry, resulting in better-tasting beers, wines and spirits that don’t rely on artificial additives or sugar. This inspired the couple to launch the Dry Goods Beverage online retailer of non-alcoholic products that “aren’t full of garbage,” said Jake Krausz.

It’s a bold move in their Napa Valley home, where the buzzing market for soft drinks is a small but growing threat to the premium wine industry. In addition, non-alcoholic still wines bear a stigma to be poorly made, unbalanced and too sweet.

Similar to the boom in low-alcohol beverages like hard seltzers in recent years, the wellness movement is driving huge growth in non-alcoholic beer, wine, and spirits. Demand has started a trend of sober bars and shops, and non-alcoholic beverages are now standard on menus in bars and restaurants, including fine-dining establishments like French Laundry and Atelier Crenn.

According to a recent study by data analyst IWSR, the production of low- and non-alcoholic beverages in the United States increased by 31% in 2021, and 33% of American adults purchase non- and low-alcohol beverages. Brandy Rand, chief operating officer of the Americas at IWSR, said non-alcohol products are the “main growth driver” in the category compared to low-alcohol beverages.

“The pace of innovation over the past few years has been remarkable,” Rand said.

The Krauszes are not the only wine professionals to settle in this area.

A handful of other Napa Valley industry veterans also see potential — especially when it comes to tapping into health-conscious young consumers — and put their experience of wine at the service of the notoriety of non-alcoholic beverages. One of the products that Dry Goods offers, for example, is all the bittera line of non-alcoholic bitters from former French Laundry sommeliers Ian and Carly Blessing.

Adrienne Stillman Krausz uses all the Non-alcoholic bitters to create a non-alcoholic cocktail called Kentucky Buck. All the Bitter was founded by two former French Laundry sommeliers.

Erik Castro/Special at The Chronicle

The Blessings decided to quit drinking after having children, but they wanted a legitimate alternative to alcohol.

“None of us have lost interest in tasting drinks,” said Ian Blessing. “Just because we don’t drink alcohol anymore doesn’t mean we want to be confined to water, tea, coffee, lemonade.”

Instead of baking bread during the pandemic, he developed an interest in fermentation and herbalism, which eventually led to producing non-alcoholic bitters with organic botanicals—like dandelion root and thistle seeds— Marie – which are believed to provide health benefits. Ian Blessing said bitters were “the one ingredient that was really missing” when it came to creating appealing non-alcoholic cocktails.

But the sommelier also expressed frustration with the lack of quality non-alcoholic wines, which can be much more difficult to obtain than non-alcoholic beer or spirits.

When alcohol is removed from a wine, beer, or spirit, many of the drink’s best characteristics — like aromas, flavors, and mouthfeel — are removed with it. This is less noticeable in beer, which benefits from the carbonation and has the added flavors of hops and yeast. There’s also a lot less alcohol to strip than in wine or spirits, since beer typically hovers around 5% alcohol. According to data from the IWSR, there are significantly more beers than wines or spirits on the non-alcoholic market.

Spirits have the most alcohol to strip, which is why most non-alcoholic spirits are for cocktails rather than just a sip. Juices, syrups, fruits and other flavors come to fill where the spirit is lacking. But non-alcoholic wine “has none of those crutches to lean on,” says Ian Blessing.

A variety of spirits and soft drinks are sold by online retailers Adrienne Stillman Krausz and Jake Krausz, founders of Dry Goods Beverage Co.

A variety of spirits and soft drinks are sold by online retailers Adrienne Stillman Krausz and Jake Krausz, founders of the Dry Beverage Co..

Erik Castro/Special at The Chronicle

Two former Treasury Wine Estates employees, Alex and Julia Littauer, know this struggle well; they spent over a year developing their first non-alcoholic wine for their company, Sovi Wine Co. The Littauers partnered with a winery in Yolo County’s Clarksburg wine region and, after much trial and error, launched in 2021.

“It’s really hard to get it right. When you do, it’s not obvious from the wine you start with if it’s going to go well,” said Julia Littauer. “We’re just starting to make products that taste really good.”

The key was finding quality fruit and the right grapes. The Littauers found that some of the more popular varietals, like Pinot Noir, didn’t perform as well as some less traditional grapes. They landed on Tempranillo for their canned sparkling rosé and, after removing the alcohol, added a small amount of grape concentrate for balance. Sovi also produces a sparkling white and a red mix.

Non-alcoholic wine brand Sovi Wine Co. was founded by Julia and Alex Littauer, who both worked for Treasury Wine Estates in Napa.

Non-alcoholic wine brand Sovi Wine Co. was founded by Julia and Alex Littauer, who both worked for Treasury Wine Estates in Napa.

Erik Castro/Special at The Chronicle

Evyn Cameron, a Napa Valley winemaker who has worked for wineries like Crocker and Star and Cliff Lede, has also taken on the challenge by working with a non-alcoholic canned wine project called buzz kill. The brainchild of Molly Fedick, the former creative director of dating app Hinge, Buzzkill will launch its first wine, a Sauvignon Blanc, in May.

Like Sovi, the Buzzkill team spent a lot of time choosing the right wine; they tasted around 150 Sauvignon Blancs before deciding on the base, which comes from Lodi. Next, Cameron selected organic flavor additions that mimic the tropical flavors of Sauvignon Blanc and layer on top of the variety’s signature freshness and clean mouthfeel. “Once you remove the alcohol, you remove the glue from the drink, and then you have to add other ingredients to make it look like wine or give it a similar taste,” Cameron said.

Still, even if Buzzkill were to open up the non-alcoholic wine industry, Cameron said she doesn’t expect many of her Napa Valley peers to follow her lead anytime soon — though perhaps they should. be. She said this could be an opportunity for wine brands to attract health-conscious younger generations – one of the industry’s biggest challenges – but acknowledged that “much of the industry wine is blocked in its own way”.

It’s a slow change, but the Blessings believe the stigma is diminishing within the liquor industry and more brands will start to realize that adding a non-alcoholic wine to their portfolio doesn’t isn’t that different from restaurants offering alternatives to dietary restrictions.

“It’s the same as offering a gluten-free bun on your burger or a veggie burger,” Carly Blessing said. “There should be an option for everyone.”

Jess Lander is a staff writer for the San Francisco Chronicle. Email: [email protected]: @jesslander