Behind the Wine Alcohol Reduction Report

ConeTech confirms it lowers alcohol for one-fourth of California's coastal Chardonnays and Pinot Noirs

by Paul Franson
Conetech told attendees at the World Bulk Wine Exhibition that it used its spinning cone column to reduce alcohol in 26% of California coastal Chardonnay in 2012 and 22% in 2013.
Santa Rosa, Calif.—It’s hardly news in the wine business that a lot of California wine undergoes reduction in alcohol, but a disclosure by one of the processors that reduces alcohol created a buzz among wine bloggers—though they were reacting to incomplete information.

Jack Ryno, vice president of operations at de-alcoholizing processor ConeTech, stated at the World Bulk Wine Exhibition in Amsterdam recently that the company typically processes one quarter of all the Pinot Noir and Chardonnay produced in coastal California, though Ryno said a report in the U.K. publication The Drinks Business left out the critical word “coastal.”

Ryno calculated the figure based on crush reports.

How it works
ConeTech uses the low-pressure, low-temperate distilling technology called a spinning cone column to remove alcohol from wine without degrading its other properties. It has four of the machines in Santa Rosa.

Ryno says ConeTech works primarily with wine companies producing wines that sell for $8 to $50. “We do some wines below and above—and from regions from the Canadian border to San Diego—but 95% of our work is from (California Grape Pricing Districts) 1, 3, 4, 7 and 8” (Mendocino, Sonoma and Marin, Napa, Monterey, San Benito, San Luis Obispo, Santa Barbara and Ventura counties).

Ryno also estimates that his company’s competitors and in-house operations probably process a similar amount of wine. “At least one former customer bought its own spinning cone,” he said.

Competitors include services like VA Filtration, Nuance, WineTech and Wine Secrets, which use reverse osmosis and osmotic transport—all processes allowed by the TTB to reduce alcohol levels. Ryno noted that many wineries own reverse-osmosis equipment that can be used for this purpose, though they must have distillers’ permits to do so.

The spinning cones are often regarded as tools for big producers, but Ryno said they could process a wine lot as small as four barrels.

Ryno added that the demand for alcohol removal varies with vintage conditions in California.

He said that ConeTech adjusted 26% of California’s coastal Chardonnay produced in 2012 and 22% in 2013. Although in the cooler harvests of 2010 and 2011, it processed just 8% and 7% of Chardonnay from those areas. By contrast, it adjusted 21% in the warm year of 2009.

Ryno said the company had processed more wine from 2013 since he compiled the report.

The source of demand
California’s sunny climate—combined with improved vines and growing conditions—naturally ripen many grapes to high Brix levels. But while American wine lovers enjoy bright, fruity wines, many consumers and critics are sensitive to high alcohol levels.

Ryno said that winemakers would rather remove alcohol from a ripe wine than create lighter, possibly greener, wines from harvesting early for naturally lower alcohol levels. “You won’t create popular wines harvesting at 22° Brix.”

Demonstrating the situation, he said, “Look at the (California Grape) Crush Report. The average Brix at harvest for Chardonnay in 2013 was 24° Brix. Using a 60% to 62% conversion to alcohol, that’s an alcohol level of 14.4% to 14.9%—but you won’t find many Chardonnays with that level in grocery stores.”

ConeTech has stills in Spain, South Africa and Chile as well as California. “If you’re a winemaker in Chile, and you want to sell into the U.S. market, you have to make wine in the style Americans prefer. It might be different if you’re selling in Europe,” he said.

There’s less sensitivity about alcohol levels for Cabernet and other wines, he added. “Most of the $40 to $50 Napa Cabernets are 14.5% and higher in alcohol.”

Ryno doesn’t claim to speak for all wineries, but he pointed to all the high-volume wines labeled at 12.5%. “They’re certainly doing something to them.”

Some producers may just add some water, which is legal, but dilutes flavors. Others may blend high- and low-alcohol wines.

Of course, tax rates on wines with alcohol levels greater than 14% are also 50 cents higher per gallon, a factor for high-volume if not expensive wines.

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