PAIRINGS September 2004

No wine, no beer, no sugar—no way! Here's a look at how to go low-carb and have your wine, too.


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Livin' La Vida Low-Carb

No wine, no beer, no sugar. No way! That's nice for an ascetic. But that's no way to live. Here's a look at how to go low-carb and have your wine, too.


When Marty Kotis's wife was pregnant, he put on a few pounds of sympathy weight. But after she gave birth to their son, she shed the extra pounds she had been carrying for nine months and Kotis, a Greensboro, North Carolina restaurant real estate developer, did not.

At 6' 2", the 35-year-old Kotis was tipping the scales at 240 pounds, his lifetime high. Several colleagues and clients, including restaurateur Gary Judd, owner of Fox and Hound English Pub and Grille, were Atkins devotees and tried to convert him to their meal plan of steaks and burgers (hold the bun).

Kotis succumbed to peer pressure, and started on the Atkins Nutritional Approach, the restrictive diet that gave birth to the low-carbohydrate craze. Kotis cut sugar, breads and snack foods from his daily intake. But despite the Atkins guidelines that require eschewing wine during the two-week "induction" phase, Kotis kept his vino.

"I drank the same amount of wine every day. I figured that was a necessity of life," explains Kotis, who has a 1,000-bottle wine cellar in his house and heads up a 40-person Bacchus wine group.

Kotis lost 10 to 12 pounds, and was pleased, but he thought if he wanted to lose the remaining 30 pounds of baby weight, he'd have to do something more sensible than eat bacon on Atkins long-term. Kotis switched to the South Beach Diet, a less restrictive plan that allows dieters to include carbohydrates in moderation.

While South Beach also recommends avoiding alcohol during its two-week induction phase, South Beach bases its "eat" and "don't eat" lists on the glycemic index, which ranks foods by their effect on blood sugar levels, rather than simply on a carb count.

Kotis, who also added exercise like sea kayaking into his weight-loss-with-wine plan, lost the 40 pounds he hoped to lose, and is now in what he says is the best shape of his life. And he kept his wine, too.

Moderates vs. Extremists
Kotis's moderate approach to the low-carb lifestyle flies in the face of those Atkins proprietors who claim to have changed their lives by piling on the meat, holding the potatoes, and shedding the wine, beer, sugar and caffeine (aka, the stuff that most of us think makes life worth living). But a number of nutritionists and others say, once again, that moderation is key. Just like low-cal, low-fat, high fiber, and every other diet fad before them, basic common sense leads most people to opt for moderation in the end. This is where low-carb mania is moving, and wine lovers can toast to that.

"The one thing I never take away from people is their wine. That and coffee," says Molly Kimball, RD, LDN, a nutritionist at Ochsner Clinic Foundation Hospital in New Orleans. "Wine and coffee are too much a part of a person's lifestyle to get rid of them." Kimball recommends that dieting women limit themselves to one glass of wine a day, while most men can consume two and keep their weight in check.

People have written dissertations about what, exactly, a carbohydrate is. But at their most basic, carbohydrates are chemical compounds—to the layperson, that means sugars—through which the body stores or consumes energy. These sugars can be divided into two categories: complex and simple. Complex carbs are fruits, vegetables, starches and bread products; simple carbs are things like table sugar, honey, candy and syrup.

Under South Beach and other low-carb plans based on the glycemic index, wines, beers and spirits are fair game after the initial orientation period. According to the obviously biased source of St. Louis brewer Anheuser-Busch, many carb-counters consider beer a "bad carb," because it contains maltose, which is a sugar that's high on the glycemic index and therefore increases blood sugar. What such analysis ignores, according to the brewer, is that yeast consumes the maltose during fermentation, and converts it to alcohol and natural carbonation, making it a "good carb." Experts agree that it is possible to enjoy beer on a low-carb diet, particularly light beers, which tend to be low in both calories and carbohydrates. TV ads that Bud Light launched in March carry the tagline "all light beers are low in carbs… choose on taste."

Wine is typically low-carb by nature, and experts say that Bud Light's motto should be what motivates wine buyers as well. Most wines, Kimball says, have about three grams of carbs per 4-ounce glass. While a Syrah might have 3.6 grams, compared to 2.7 grams for a Sauvignon Blanc (according to the nutritional content that Sutter Home provides), those variations are slight (drier wines are likely to have less sugar and fewer carbs), and not like to impact one's overall carb consumption or weight loss. One slice of bread, by comparison, can have as many as 15 grams of carbs, so dickering over saving 1 gram of carbs here or there is like saving pennies to buy a Ferrari. It'll take a long time to see results.

Letting the Carb Count Hang Out
Many wineries are creating bottle hangers—tags that include nutritional information and tout their products as "low-carb." Officially, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has yet to define what "low-carb" means, so the labels are strictly buyer beware. However, the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau ruled in April that the term "low carbohydrate" could appear on the label of any wine that contains no more than 7 grams of carbohydrates per 5-ounce serving. That's a pretty broad definition, particularly because most wines already meet those guidelines.

Others are taking it one step further. In May Louisville, Kentucky-based Brown-Forman Corp. introduced One.6 Chardonnay and One.9 Merlot, new low-carb wines. In the first 60 days Brown Forman sold 300,000 cases to distributors. "I've never seen anything like this," says Andrew Varga, senior vice president, global brand director for Brown-Forman Wines. "Usually, even with very successful products, it takes a while to get critical mass. But nobody [of the distributors Brown-Forman approached] told us 'no'." Supermarket Giant Eagle even issued a press release to tout that it was the "first supermarket in northeast Ohio to carry 'reduced in carb' wines."

Varga attributes some of the wines' success to their middle-of-the-road, please-everyone flavor profiles. The Chardonnay, he says, is leaner and crisper with less obvious oak flavor. The Merlot has additional barrel fermentation, and cherry and blackberry notes with a nice body. A recent blind taste test conducted by the Chicago Tribune found the One.6 and One.9 wines to be indistinguishable from their moderately priced competitors, although fairly unremarkable overall.

That sort of lukewarm endorsement is what has some enophiles concerned. "It is all kind of silly," says James P. Cima, a doctor of holistic medicine in Palm Beach Garden, Florida, and the author of 10 self-published nutrition books, including How to Eat More and Lose Weight and Never Diet Again.

"If we're looking at wine, and they're reducing a glass of wine from 4 to 2 grams of carbs, we're talking about a savings of only 2 carbs," Cima says. "That's nothing. I don't think it is worth it for the wine industry to reduce calories and carbs but kill the bouquet and the robustness while doing it."

Cima likes wine as part of a balanced diet because of its ability to aid digestion, and because it forces diners to calm down, eat slowly and enjoy their meals.

Kimball has some parting advice for the 59 million Americans counting carbs: "You should not have a wine you enjoy less just because it has fewer carbs. That's what a lot of people would do, but it doesn't make sense," she says. "You drink wine to enjoy it. Just have the wine you like and then, if you really need to cut your calories, don't have dessert."

That's worked well for Kotis. "I drink what I like. Maybe this is just my rationalization, but think about it: People talk about beer guts, not wine guts. That's why I still drink wine."

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