A wine for the weight conscious

It’s an idea the wine industry keeps trying: the low calorie wine aimed at waist-conscious women. In 2005 there was Foster’s Early Harvest, which was heavily promoted in Australia for a short period, until the company’s marketing director was foolish enough to say it was perfect for women, as for them, “wine is not an intellectual pursuit”. The reaction was enough to bury the product for good. Or then there was Beringer’s White Lie, produced by Foster’s in the US in much the same way as Early Harvest. It was dead by 2007, after the company discovered that women didn’t want to be patronised by wine companies. And in between there have been several other attempts.

But one wine stands out as a success: the Weight Watchers wines, released in 2002. Produced by German company Reh Kendermann, who have the Weight Watchers license, the wines are sold through British supermarkets like Tesco and ASDA, for around £4.99 a bottle.

According to Alison Flemming MW, the company’s export sales director, Reh Kendermann had already produced a low calorie wine for a UK retailer. That project failed to come to fruition, but it had left the company knowing that they could make such a wine. “Basically, it’s the alcohol in wine that gives you most calories,” she says. “German grapes are well suited to produce aromatic wines without high potential alcohol, yet with the flavour compounds well developed. There aren’t any other countries that can do this, unless they’re picking early – which can give you unripe characters – or are using spinning cone technology, which means they’re not ‘natural’ wines.”

Although Reh Kendermann knew they could produce a genuine low calorie wine—the Weight Watchers wines are between 9-9.5% alcohol—they wanted the endorsement of a major slimming brand. “I approached a number of people, including Weight Watchers, and we got the thing set up,” says Flemming. “We had one SKU, which was a Riesling, and we managed to get listings with four major multiples within six months, which is normally unheard of.”

Flemming says that even when the business match is right, it can take time for licensing issues to be negotiated. Not surprisingly, Weight Watchers is a demanding partner. “One of their important tenets is that the Weight Watchers endorsed products must taste good, so part of their ethos is to do benchmark sampling against alternative products,” she says. “They’re trying to show people that Weight Watchers food is made from real ingredients with positive food values and credentials.”

Something that needed to be sorted out early on was what labels to use on the wine. “Weight Watchers were used to groceries and they wanted to label the wine in the same way as a grocery brand,” says Flemming. “But wine labels are very different, so we had to work with them to find something that would satisfy both parties.” Flemming says the present label is the result of consumer research carried out in the UK with both Weight Watchers members and non-members.

Reh Kendermann is itself a company with significant clout, being the leading exporter of German branded wines worldwide, which is no doubt why they could open the conversation with Weight Watchers. The latter is a massive, multinational brand that has generated a high level of trust with consumers, which makes PR and marketing easier. “We sample trade and consumer press, consumers at fairs and exhibitions, place adverts and advertorials in retailers’ magazines and slimming publications, and so on,” says Flemming. On top of that, Weight Watchers have their own publications, and their products are endlessly discussed in chat rooms, where new products are widely discussed.

A typical discussion can be seen on lovethatwine.co.uk: a poster called Gemma says “I would prefer one glass of nice wine to every ten of this”, while poster Lee says “The wine itself is not different for being a WW and the taste is really fruity, so is excellant [sic] for summer”. On another forum, posters anxiously confess to drinking an entire bottle in one sitting, and ask how this has affected their diet.

Weight Watchers wine was launched in 2002, with a target of 5,000 cases. Today, Flemming says annual sales in the UK are over 100,000 9L cases. By April this year alone, wine sales were up 15% in volume and 21% in value on the year before (Nielsen). Not surprisingly, Reh Kendermann have another wine in the works, to add to the Riesling, the Fruity White, the two Rosés and the Red they already offer.

Unlike Early Harvest, these wines will probably have longevity. Firstly, because Weight Watchers is a trusted brand, the perceived cynicism that consumers objected to with Early Harvest and White Lie isn’t there. Secondly, the health trends are running their way. As Flemming says, “One of the things that is on the agenda in the UK at the moment with both the retailers and government is health and efforts to combat obesity,” she says. “At a Weight Watchers conference in June, they estimated that 50% of women and 60% of men will be clinically obese by 2050.”
Felicity Carter

This article first appeared in Meininger’s Wine Business International in 2009.