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California vintner markets diet wine

Taylor California Cellars is introducing what it describes as the nation's first diet wine, a low-calorie, low-alcohol Chablis aimed at winning over consumers who don't currently drink wine. The Monterey County winery says its new Chablis has 38 calories per 3.4-ounce glass, or about half the calories of a typical glass of white wine. The wine has 3.4 percent alcohol, compared with the 11 percent alcoholic content of most white wines.

The new product is far lighter than other beverages vintners offer. Following the lead of those on the light beer bandwagon, several big wine marketers including Taylor, Paul Masson and Almaden in the past decade introduced "lite" or "soft" wines. These had fewer calories and 7 percent to 8 percent alcohol content.

Most consumers turned up their noses at this variety of wines because of the watery taste, said Eileen Fredrikson of the wine-industry consulting firm Gomberg, Fredrikson.

"These wines have not done much in the market because they generally lost the subtle, lovely flavors of a white wine or the strong cherry or musky flavor of a good red wine," she said.

As the public becomes ever more obsessed about diet, so has interest in low- and no-alcohol wines. Although these wines still comprise just a tiny portion of the market, they grew about 8 percent last year while overall wine volume remained flat.

"Light and diet products are available in just about every food and beverage category, from beer to dessert. Diet wine was the next logical step," said Jose Fernandez, vice president of marketing at Taylor, a unit of wine giant Vintners International, which also owns Napa Valley winery Paul Masson.

Fernandez said the company hopes the new drink, which sells for $4.99 to $5.99 per 1.5-liter bottle, will attract consumers seeking an alternative to soda or beer.

Taylor said it plans to introduce a diet White Zinfandel this spring and is working on developing other varieties.

"In beverages, taste is paramount," said Jean-Michel Valette, a wine analyst with Hambrecht and Quist in San Francisco.

However, he said, similar wines are already big sellers in the United Kingdom and elsewhere in Europe.