Devil's Advocate: 10 Reasons Why People Want Zero-Alcohol Beverages

Robert Joseph considers the reasons for the growth in the demand for zero-alcohol beverages.

Reading time: 4m 15s

Robert Joseph with horns
Robert Joseph with horns

Of all human qualities, which is more important than empathy – the emotion whose absence allows sociopaths and psychopaths to do their worst?

Of course, I’m not suggesting that any wine professionals have sociopathic traits, but  let’s focus on the empathy aspect for a moment. I’m losing patience with the people in this industry who are quietly or loudly taking a negative attitude towards non-alcoholic wine.

Some of them express themselves plainly in conversations or on social media; others make their feelings clear by rolling their eyes when the subject is raised.

Now, to be clear, I sympathise with their opposition to it being called ‘wine’, just as I have railed against the abuse of terms like ‘clean’ and ‘natural’ wine. Wine-based beverage is fine by me.

I also understand that many of them have had bad experiences with non-alcoholic wine over the years. So have I. But I also had a bad time with natural wines and the first electric car I owned: a Nissan Leaf that seemed to need recharging after being driven around the block.

Natural wines and EVs have improved dramatically – as have NA wine-based drinks and, although most are still far too sweet, they increasingly fit the needs of their target consumer.

And that’s where empathy comes in. The people who wish NA were a fad, soon to be forgotten, clearly struggle to wear the shoes of the growing number of people who, sometimes or regularly, want or need to drink beer, spirits or wine with no alcohol.

10 reasons why

So, maybe it’s time to list some reasons why they may want to do this.

  They have a medical reason not to drink alcohol for a while – ranging from undergoing a course of antibiotics to pregnancy and viral hepatitis.

  Their body does not metabolise alcohol properly – either because of a genetically acquired aldehyde dehydrogenase (ALDH2) deficiency (which affects 8% of the population and 30-40% in some parts of Asia) to sudden onset alcohol intolerance as a result of a condition such as Hodgkin's lymphoma.

  They are taking Ozempic to help them to reduce their weight. Some people find the drug makes alcohol unpalatable – a finding supported by tests on rats.

  They are trying to lose weight without resorting to Ozempic. This objective is achieved by half the people who take part in Dry January. Many also report improved sleep patterns.

  They are in a situation where alcohol is not allowed – such as a country like Saudi Arabia, or a ‘dry day’ in India which will have 24 of these this year.

  They are going to be driving or operating complex equipment, or working for an employer who demands zero-alcohol and may even apply random tests to detect it. (So no glass of white with lunch.)

  They have given up alcohol after a history of abusing it.

  They are doing Dry January or Sober October, possibly – and very sensibly - to prove to themselves that they don’t have a problem with alcohol.

  They are with other people who, for whatever reason, are not drinking alcohol.

  They have found other ways - such as cannabis or a functional beverage such as Sentia that gives them the buzz they are looking for.

I cannot say how comprehensive this list is, but I'm quite sure it will get longer rather than shorter.


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Lucky beer drinkers

Okay, the NA-naysayers may respond, but why go to the trouble of dealcoholizing wine. Why not drink something else?

So, what is on offer for a wine drinker - rather than a beer or spirits fan - looking for an adult beverage, possibly - but not necessarily - to enjoy with food? In other words, for people seeking an alternative to water;  soft drinks or fruit juice, almost all of which are sweet. Why shouldn't they have a glass of something that will give them pleasure? Would we ask people who want to avoid caffeine to give up drinking coffee- or tea-like hot drinks?

Like the decaf-drinkers, beer– and, to a slightly lesser extent, spirits – consumers are lucky. Compared to wine, the range of high-quality non-alcoholic drinks on offer to them is already quite broad, and growing more so almost by the month.. There is a simple explanation for this: money. Millions of dollars have been thrown at the challenge by big brewers and distillers. By comparison, the effort by the wine industry has been miniscule. And dealcoholising wine without losing all its appeal is far tricker.

But the last five years have seen a huge change. The equipment and technical skills have improved, and are continuing to improve, the ambitions and imagination of the industry have broadened and sugar levels are coming down, as producers hone their skills. Today, people like Ernst Loosen in Germany, Giesen in New Zealand, Chavin and Dominique Laporte in France, Amanda Thompson with Noughty and David Hodgson with Zeno, are all making increasingly palatable beverages.

Have any of these or anyone else found the holy grail of a non-alcoholic, wine-based beverage that is as deliciously complex as the finest classic wine? No, of course not, and as a wine lover, I’m guessing and hoping they’ll never do so. But that question is missing the point.

No need to be as good as wine

First, of course, most of us as rarely get to drink the ‘finest classic wine’ as most meat eaters get to enjoy wagyu steaks. But, more importantly, anyone making a non-alcoholic adult drink is not competing with full-strength beer, spirits or wine. The competition they face is Coca Cola, orange juice, water – and each other.

That 'each other', I readily concede, will increasingly include innovative options such as some highly delicious sparkling teas and 'proxies'. But most wine drinkers will, I'm betting, prefer to trust a familiar brand or grape variety than explore a wholly new sector. Just as beer drinkers on their nights off alcohol are happily buying Heineken and Guinness 0.0.

Anyone who wants to experience the buzz to be found in alcohol and the complexity of classic alcoholic beverages, will be free to do so. And those who are happily raising their occasional or regular glasses of NA will hopefully empathise with them.

And vice versa.

Declaration of interest: putting my money where my mouth is, I am currently involved in producing a zero-alcohol, wine-based beverage in France under the le Grand Noir label, and one in Georgia that will be called Sha-Ori.

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One of the most interesting panels at Vinitaly was on the topic of the anti-alcohol movement and its impact on consumers. The panellists also discussed ways to push back against disinformation.

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