Byers: Getting the skinny on low-calorie wines |

Byers: Getting the skinny on low-calorie wines

Photo for The Union by Anita Kasparian

It’s January and for many of us that means New Year’s resolutions. Of course, resolutions mean different things to different people, grappling with smoking, exercise or money is common, but by far our No. 1 resolution is losing a few pounds. Does that mean wine must go at least for a little while?

Lately I have been hearing about the “Skinny Girl” brand of alcoholic beverages and wondered, could I have my wine and drink it, too?

Skinny Girl, the brainchild of Bethenny Frankel (of Real Housewives of New York fame), appeared in 2009. Skinny Girl started with a pre-mixed margarita that is 250 calories compared to as much as 740 calories for a similar-sized, traditional 10-ounce margarita. Skinny Girl was an instant hit. Sales soared to 100,000 cases a year, and a multi-million dollar sale to alcohol industry giant Beam Distillers quickly followed. Beam subsequently decided to bring lower-calorie Skinny Girl wines to the party.

According to Lisa Shea (, “The calories in a glass of wine come solely from the alcohol in the wine. There are only trace amounts of protein in the wine, 0 grams of fat and 0.0 grams of saturated fats.”

It’s quite simple. Lower the alcohol content and you lower the calories.

Light or low-calorie wines are not new. In California, we can trace them back to Ed Friedrich, a German-born and trained winemaker at the old San Martin Winery in Santa Clara County in the 1970s. He grew up drinking German Rieslings with 9 percent alcohol and felt there was a market for wines with less than the 12.5 percent alcohol that was then common.

At the time federal laws allowed for wines with a minimum of 7 percent alcohol, but California demanded 10 percent. In 1975, Friedrich created a “soft” Chenin Blanc where he stopped fermentation at 10 percent alcohol leaving a balance of about 3.5 percent (unfermented) residual sugar. The next year he produced a low-alcohol Riesling, again with 10 percent alcohol and 8 percent residual sugar, leaving it quite sweet to the taste. He produced “soft” Gamay Beaujolais and “soft” Zinfandel as well.

He petitioned California to conform to federal laws, and in 1978, the state agreed. Friedrich quickly released a Riesling with 7.5 percent alcohol and 8.8 percent residual sugar.

The change became permanent in 1979. Friedrich’s “soft” style of low-alcohol winemaking was quickly re-interpreted as “light” wines. Wineries like Taylor, Paul Mason, Sebastiani and Los Hermanos (Beringer) wanted to get in on America’s growing attraction with lo-cal, light and diet products. Coca-Cola had introduced diet cola Tab in 1963. Miller brought us Miller Lite in 1975.

Why not wine-lite?

A court ruling permitted calorie counts on labels, and suddenly we had Paul Mason Light Chablis with a neck-tag claiming 1/3 fewer calories.

A 5-ounce glass of 13 percent alcohol wine is 100 calories while a 5-ounce glass with 8 percent alcohol is 65 calories.

Although the common impression is that calories from alcohol are stored as fat with “beer belly” as exhibit A, that is not how it works.

“Very little of alcohol is turned into fat. Instead, the liver converts it into acetate, which the body burns for fuel. For dieters, the thing to watch is that the body enjoys burning acetate more readily than burning body fat meaning that body fat waits to be burned until after all of the acetate is used up,” Shea explains.

Actually, it’s even worse than that. Not only do our bodies prefer to burn acetate over fat, but the rate of absorption of the fat that our bodies still do burn is dramatically reduced while the acetate is available. There’s no place for existing and newly arriving fat to go, so it gets stored, as fat.

Alcohol also doubles as an appetite stimulant. Not only do we eat more when we’re drinking, but it also lessens our resolve, so we have dessert too.

If you are trying to lose weight, don’t drink wine or any alcohol for that matter. If you are on maintenance plan and it is more about a long-term lifestyle you can live with, then perhaps it makes sense to make room for a glass of wine. There is plenty of evidence, including weight loss studies, to suggest that a daily glass of wine is beneficial.

Weight Watchers, one of our most respected weight loss plans, now has Weight Watchers Wine. Weight Watchers teamed up with McWilliams Winery in Australia to produce a set of wines that are available in both Australia and Britain but not here.

The wines all have alcohol levels between 6 and 10 percent. Stickers on the bottles give nutritional information and the points value, the units that are the heart of the Weight Watchers system.

Weight Watchers gives two points to a 4-ounce glass of wine. Count your daily points. If you can fit in two more, you’re good to go.

If you count calories, Lisa Shea has an easy formula. It’s 1.6 times the percentage of alcohol times the number of ounces.

One overlooked place where it is easy to make a mistake is the size of the glass. Big wine glasses are popular. Four ounces can look skimpy, making it easy to over-pour, multiplying everything.

Next time you’re buying wine, whether it’s a trendy low-cal wine or your current favorite, check the alcohol. It’s printed right on the front label. Once you start looking, you will start finding wines with less than the 14 percent alcohol that is common now. Better yet, you’ll discover new wines that you might never have thought of.

Rod Byers, CWE, is a Certified Wine Educator and wine writer as well as a California State Certified Wine Judge. You can find information about his upcoming series of Sierra College Kaleidoscope Wine Classes starting in February at and he can be reached at (530) 913-3703.

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