New Low-Alcohol Wine Targets Women

A winery took up the age-old question, What do women want, and came up with this answer: A lower-alcohol wine.

The new product, White Lie Early Season (search) chardonnay, bucks the trend of "fruit bomb" wines that carry a hefty alcoholic punch. It clocks in at 9.8 percent alcohol compared to the 13 and 14 percent found in some vintages.

With its curly scripted label and "wink-wink" marketing — corks stamped with white lies, such as "I got it on sale" — Beringer Blass Wine Estates (search) is aiming squarely at women, consumers who some wine marketers believe have been largely ignored by the wine industry.

An all-woman research and development team worked on the wine, which is scheduled to start selling in major national markets in May for less than $10 a bottle.

The reason behind White Lie's lower alcohol is that it's made from grapes picked earlier, when sugar levels are lower. Technology is used to extract a little more of the alcohol.

The approach is quite a change from the recent "hang time" trend of letting grapes stay on the vines longer in pursuit of ever fuller flavor.

"There were a bunch of us sitting around saying, You know what? We don't need all that alcohol," said Tracey Mason, director of global innovation for Beringer Blass. "We really wanted to create a wine for everyday consumption that tasted great."

The idea is to enjoy a little wine without the "fuzz factor."

"We're all juggling so much," said Mason. "If you can have what you want but cut out a little bit of what you don't want, we felt like that would be a really positive thing to do."

Wine, or any alcohol, affects women more than men because they metabolize alcohol more slowly, said Dr. Charles H. Halsted, a professor of medicine at the University of California, Davis, who studies the medical effects of alcohol.

When a man drinks, 30 percent of the alcohol is eliminated in his stomach, but for women only 10 percent metabolizes, resulting in a higher blood level of alcohol.

White Lie is light-bodied and tastes quite different from the oak-y, buttery chardonnays popular in recent years. It has 97 calories per 5-ounce serving.

Reaction from wine experts to Beringer's new concept was mixed.

Linda Bisson, a professor in the University of California, Davis, wine department wasn't smitten with the idea. But she agrees there are plenty of women who don't like the heavy, alcoholic wines prevalent today and is glad to see someone trying to reach that part of the market.

"I'm not surprised that you've got someone backing way off from this excessive hang time style," she said.

Paul Wagner, owner of Napa-based Balzac Communications & Marketing, isn't convinced that women are being neglected by the industry now. "For a generation, women have bought more wine than men and everybody knows that." But he sees White Lie as part of a larger trend as the industry tries to broaden its appeal.

Michaela Rodeno, CEO of St. Supery, suspects that openly targeting women could backfire. On the other hand, "anything that gets American people comfortable with drinking wine on a regular basis is a good thing," she said. "If this Beringer program makes women feel like this is a wine I can just pick up off the shelf and enjoy — Bravo!"