The year is 1981. Californian wine producer Paul Masson releases Masson Light; Taylor California Cellars launch Light Chablis; and Beringer’s new low-alcohol Chablis hits the shelves. An article in “New York” magazine covers the growing trend towards wines aimed at calorie-conscious consumers who buy light beer, diet soft drinks and bottled water.
Fast-forward 30 years and the “new” low-alcohol, low-calorie buzz in the wine industry is loud enough to cause tinnitus. A spate of these products has appeared in the past three years, including Skinnygirl, which has jumped from pre-mixed drinks into wine.
The Skinnygirl brand is the brainchild of Bethenny Frankel, a member of the original “Real Housewives of New York City” line-up. She morphed from reality TV star into a self-described “healthy-living entrepreneur," releasing the first in a range of Skinnygirl pre-mixed drinks in 2009. Bartenders scoffed: what did Frankel know about margaritas other than how to drink them?
But Frankel had the last laugh. In 2010, she sold 90,000 cases of margarita (sangria and white cranberry cosmo were later added to the range) and in March 2011, the brand was bought by spirits giant Beam for $8.1 million. The company’s quarterly report in August 2011 said Frankel herself was in line to receive up to $25 million, based on “the achievement of certain sales targets.”
Within a year of its purchase, Beam announced a net sales growth for Skinnygirl of 486 percent in 2011 and it seemed inevitable that brand extension would follow. Cue the introduction in late February of three Skinnygirl low-calorie wines, marking Beam’s return to the wine market. In 2007, the company had sold off its entire wine portfolio to concentrate on spirits. But the combination of reality TV and a ready market of female drinkers proved irresistible for a company already looking to tap into the female market with products such as Courvoisier Rose, a lower-alcohol cognac it promotes as “easy drinking for any occasion – over a night out with the girls, in mixed company, or for a night with a significant other.”
Steve Fechheimer, vice-president, Skinnygirl global strategy, describes the target consumer as a “30- to 39-year-old persevering woman.” Say what? According to Beam's global communications and public relations vice-president, Paula Erickson, it means “a woman that has it all.” But do women who have it all really aspire to drinking a low-calorie “California rosé” or “California red” costing $15? In Fechheimer’s view: “It's definitely an attainable brand. It's inclusive.”
He adds: “Women want sophisticated wines and we think this wine provides them with that. These are 12 percent abv wines, they taste great and all the feedback on them is incredibly strong ... We are excited to have people taste the product and know how wonderful it really is.” Beam refused to tell Wine-Searcher how it makes these low-alcohol wines in the high-alcohol-producing Californian climate, saying the manufacturing process is “proprietary.”
The skinny part of Skinnygirl is in the calorie savings: there are 100 calories per 5fl-oz or 150-ml glass, versus 123 calories for a non-diet wine. The saving per glass allows drinkers to indulge in the equivalent of a small carrot or a quarter of a pear. On her website, Frankel waxes euphoric about the latest additions to her brand: “Red, blush and white, these three ladies are the newest Skinnygirls.”
She adds: “I’m not a wine connoisseur, but I do love a refreshing, great-tasting glass of wine and that’s what I’ve created. There is a selection of red, white and rosé varietals ... and each serving is only 100 calories – 15 percent lower than most other brands.” In fact, the Skinnygirl wines are not varietals but blends: a chardonnay–pinot grigio, a syrah-dominant red, and a grenache–syrah rosé.
What about the calorie count? “We are not talking big numbers here,” says Joan Salge Blake, a clinical associate professor at Boston University and author of “Nutrition and You." In Salge Blake’s view, “the take-home message is, if you want to spend 100 calories on a glass of wine, that's fine, but if it's too many glasses, it's displacing other, more nutritious foods.”
Serving sizes are also key to keeping your calories under control.
“We have lost sight of the fact that our wine glasses have morphed to unbelievably large sizes," says Salge Blake. "If you go up into the attic and get grandma's wine glass, that's going to be much smaller than you are seeing right now. You can get wine glasses that are like water goblets; they hold eight, 10 or 12 ounces ... large amounts. One needs to be cognizant of calories but also portion size.”
The Skinnygirl message is all about being, well, skinny. Does it matter that women’s insecurities about their weight are being used as a marketing tool? Lynn Grefe, president & CEO of the U.S. National Eating Disorders Association, says it does.
“I would suggest that real women not buy into these kinds of campaigns, pushing the elitism of skinny," Grefe says. "It is truly marketing at its opportunistic heights.”
Grefe is not the only one voicing her disapproval, but Skinnygirl strategist Fechheimer is unperturbed: “I think we’ll let the brand and the product speak for itself. The brand is really about lifestyle and choices that women, the target customer, make.”
More than two-thirds of Americans are now considered to be overweight. As a result, an estimated 75 million dieters pour $60 billion into the country’s weight-loss industry each year, according to market research firm Market Data Enterprises. Clearly, there is money to be made. However, a healthy lifestyle and being skinny are not synonymous, warns Salge Blake: “A skinny person isn’t necessarily healthy or unhealthy. Some people are just born skinny and they’re very healthy, but it isn’t necessarily something to strive for because not everyone can be skinny.”
Of course, Skinnygirl is not the only brand that has tried to capitalize on a desire to curb calorie consumption in alcohol. In the 1980s, there were the aforementioned Beringer’s low-alcohol Chablis and other brands. They’re all long gone, but in 2004, Beringer tried again with White Lie Chardonnay. Despite a hefty marketing budget, it was discontinued a year later. According to its owners, Treasury Wine Estates, “it was a bit ahead of its time given its launch well before the explosion of healthy choices we’re now seeing in consumer products.” The Weight Watchers range of wines, made by German producers Reh Kendermann, has been more successful, standing the test of time in the dog-eat-dog British market.
Down under in Australia, the market is different. According to Rowan Dean from Treasury Wine Estates, “in Australia, the messaging is more about low alcohol than low calorie ... it’s about lifestyle. Per capita consumption in Australia is a lot higher than in the U.S., so units are important.” Indeed, Australian products such as Lindeman's Early Harvest, Preece's Lighter in Alcohol, and Trentham Estate's Two-Thirds focus on lower alcohol levels and social responsibility, with reduced calories championed only as an additional bonus.
Regardless, the low-alcohol/low-calorie category remains just a dot on the wine-drinking map and many consumers have yet to be convinced about the inherent quality of these wines. Research commissioned by Britain’s Wine and Spirit Trade Association in 2011 found that consumers were reticent about buying low-alcohol drinks. Jeremy Beadles, the association’s chief executive at the time, said: “While there’s plenty of evidence to suggest consumers are interested in lower-alcohol drinks, these findings suggest there’s work to do to convince drinkers about the taste and quality of products coming onto the market.”
Wines that have been subjected to alcohol-removing methods such as spinning cone technology and reverse-osmosis machines have been widely criticized by the wine media, so it’s hardly surprising that consumers are sceptical. That said, sales of wines that are naturally low in alcohol, including Italian moscato d’Asti (5.5 percent ABV) and prosecco (around 11 percent ABV), are booming. However, the reason for the surge in sales relates principally to the current popularity of wines with a fresh, fruity character. Treasury Wine Estates’ Dean says: “We drink a lot more fresh white wines than we used to, including sauvignon blanc. Moscato is going through the roof. There’s more pinot noir than heavy red. It’s a macro trend and low alcohol is one part of that, but [lighter and more refreshing] is the bigger trend.”
But it’s calories that count with fans of Skinnygirl and its impressive sales figures suggest that it is the flavor of the month. Beam, it seems, is shaping up to be Skinnygirl’s ideal partner.