Ready or not, the wine cooler is ready for a comeback

“This is not your mom’s wine cooler, I can say that much!”

By Ashlie D. Stevens

Food Editor

Published August 11, 2022 5:29PM (EDT)

Close-up of mixed drink/cocktail ingredients (Getty Images/sbk_20d pictures)
Close-up of mixed drink/cocktail ingredients (Getty Images/sbk_20d pictures)

Long before White Claw ascended the pop culture throne, Bartles and Jaymes ("Thank you for your support") was the trendy beverage.

In 1991, wine coolers were climbing the same ladder that spiked seltzers would eventually scale decades later. Then Congress effectively killed them off. 

That was the year that legislators voted to raise the federal excise tax on wine to $1.07 per gallon. While that may not sound like much, the previous tax was around 17 cents, meaning the rate nearly quintupled overnight. Producers of wine coolers — which are typically a mix of white wine, fruit flavoring and occasionally additional sweeteners and carbonation — shifted to formulating drinks with malt, which is much cheaper. 

Out with the actual wine, in with Zima

Now, nearly 30 years later, could the wine cooler break back into the market again, albeit with a slightly cooler reputation? Several signs, including the Bartles and Jaymes relaunch in recent years, point to yes. 

"I think when most people think of wine coolers, they think of their romance novel-reading aunt getting buzzed by the pool in the '80s or trying to get drunk off Smirnoff Ice in a basement in high school," said Molly Fedick, the founder of Buzzkill Wines, which is set to launch its own canned wine cooler by early 2023. 

"That being said, when I think of the 'modern' definition of a wine cooler, it's not as strict," she told Salon Food. "I think of it as a carbonated wine-based drink with a lower ABV. You don't necessarily need to add fruit juice or sugar. Wine coolers haven't been, well, cool, for a while, so I think the new definition is up for grabs."

A well-made wine cooler, like the kind Buzzkill has in development, certainly dovetails with several key trends that have dominated the beverage market over the last few years. Perhaps most importantly, wine coolers have traditionally been marketed as lower ABV beverages, which fits into the ethos of a brand like Buzzkill which specializes in non-alcoholic and low ABV offerings. 

Fedick spent much of her time as a 20-something in New York, where she described the drinking culture as "super aggressive — like, dancing on the table-aggressive." 

"I would drink glasses of rosé and Aperol Spritzes like they were going out of style," she said. "Eventually, you realize you need to chill out, and that prompted me to take eight months off from drinking. During those eight months, I really missed wine, which is why I created our first product, Buzzkill Sauvignon Blanc. That product has a .5% ABV, which means 'non-alcoholic.'" 

Eventually, she began thinking about a 2.5% ABV carbonated wine-based product. For reference, most hard seltzers, like White Claw, come in at about 5% ABV.

"I liked that idea that we could do different varietals, that there were many use cases for the product, and most importantly, that it could be a 'jumping off' point for people who were maybe thinking about cutting back on alcohol," Fedick said.

The wine cooler resurgence would also hit at a time when both canned wines and ready-to-drink (RTD) cocktails and mixed drinks are really hitting their stride. According to data compiled NielsenIQ, year-over-year off-premise dollar sales of RTD cocktails increased by 126%. 

Experts attribute that triple-digit growth to several key factors. 

"Canned cocktails are a convenient and quality solution for cocktail lovers," Earl Kight, the co-founder and chief sales and marketing officer for Cutwater Spirits, told BevAlc Insights for its 2022 RTD cocktail forecast. "No ingredients, no prep or clean-up. They offer controlled ABVs and consistently taste delicious." 

Canned wine has seen similar growth. According to research in Market Watch, increased numbers of winemakers selling canned wines and available products contributed to the segment's overall approximate 68% growth to about $200 million in 2020. 

As such, consumers are now more attuned to the idea that pre-mixed, canned drinks can actually be good, as opposed to simply being a way to get buzzed on the beach without being fined for schlepping glass onto the sand. To help their beverages stand out in a crowded market, canned wine and cocktail makers are increasingly relying on using interesting wine and spirits mixed with real ingredients. 

And that's what you can expect from Buzzkill. According to Fedick, the brand plans to use some "very exciting, sophisticated wines [and] varietals that you are not used to seeing in canned wine products." 

"In addition to this, the product is low-sugar, low-calorie — probably around 35 calories per can — and the wine will be the star of the show, not some weird, processed fruit juice," she said. "This is not your mom's wine cooler. I can say that much."

By Ashlie D. Stevens

Ashlie D. Stevens is Salon's food editor. She is also an award-winning radio producer, editor and features writer — with a special emphasis on food, culture and subculture. Her writing has appeared in and on The Atlantic, National Geographic’s “The Plate,” Eater, VICE, Slate, Salon, The Bitter Southerner and Chicago Magazine, while her audio work has appeared on NPR’s All Things Considered and Here & Now, as well as APM’s Marketplace. She is based in Chicago.

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Analysis Beverages Canned Wine Cocktails Low Abv Wine Wine Cooler