Born in the wine region of Napa Valley, Danny Frounfelkner has spent most of his life in the alcohol industry, working for wineries, breweries, restaurants, and distribution companies.
A few years ago, however, Danny decided it was time to make a change. He left alcohol behind, and took his 20+ years of experience to a new venture: Sipple. Texas' first non-alcoholic bottle shop.
To start things off, could you tell me a bit about yourself?
For sure! I've been in beverage and hospitality for over twenty years now. I grew up on the edge of Napa Valley in California, there were these small, family-owned vineyards like a mile from my house growing up. I was interested in the wineries from a very young age. The idea that you could take stuff from the earth and make a sought-after liquid was fascinating. I became a beverage nerd pretty young and got really intrigued with fermentation and all that kind of stuff, which led me to studying wine. Since then, I’ve worked as a beverage director and sommelier for a lot of top restaurant groups. I’ve worked in distribution and production at four different wineries in Napa Valley as well as five wineries in Italy. From there, I moved into a Director of Operations position for a Houston brewery and helped launch their facility and branding.
Wow, that’s quite the resume!
Yeah! And that was all through alcohol, so everyone's always like, “what the hell, why did you leave alcohol behind?” To answer that, at a certain point I realized I had started to do what my father had done with alcohol.
Growing up, I saw my dad using alcohol as an escape tool, a way of numbing out. He's a Vietnam War vet, he worked in heart surgery for a long time, so he’s had a lot of trauma and a lot of stress, and he was taught to use alcohol as a way to just numb the pain, to escape reality, to escape feelings, to escape trauma.
I saw that that's what I had begun doing, and had in fact been doing for a while already. I have three young kids and I didn't want that life for them, so I realized I needed to break that cycle.
What has that process of changing your relationship with alcohol been like?
Easier said than done! It's very hard to undo conditioning and rewire your brain and all that. So it took a while, especially working in alcohol. I was still working at a brewery, and it was very challenging to still be working in alcohol and cutting back drinking. But I’d developed a very unhealthy relationship with alcohol that was affecting all parts of my life. My work, my relationship with my children, with my wife, with friends, a lot of different things. I didn't want to live that lifestyle anymore, it had become very sad and lonely.
I knew I wasn't going to be able to go cold turkey, so slowly but surely I eased off the alcohol. I lost some friends, but honestly I felt fucking great.
Could you say a bit more about how changing your relationship with alcohol has changed your life?
For sure. I’m sleeping better, higher functioning, more present, more patient with my kids and myself.
Alcohol was my worst and best friend. It was always there for me, but always left me feeling like shit. Good day? Pop a bottle. Bad day? Pop a bottle. When I took that away I was like, “oh shit, I'm alone with my own thoughts and feelings.” That's very scary, but that's really what I wanted. I wanted to heal traumas and repair myself.
Alcohol, if you break it down, is a poison. There's no health benefits to alcohol at all so cutting that out really helped my gut and overall health. I had a lot of health issues and they've gone away or they're very minimal now. I also dug deeper into mental health, emotional health, and spiritual health. Focusing on my physical health first, getting rid of alcohol and cleaning up my liver and other organs and being healthier really gave me the time and space necessary to work on that other stuff.
I mean talk about a massive impact on my life. It’s really easy to focus on what you’re losing by giving up alcohol, but you actually gain a lot more freedom without this dependency on drinking and other substances. You get sovereignty over your own soul, your own mind, your own body.
How did you decide to start Sipple?
Summer 2019 I wasn’t drinking at all anymore and it was there where I was like, “okay I want to do something in the non-alcoholic space. I believe in it, I'm living it, and I think this is the new way.” I started connecting with brands, and finally in 2021 after two and half years we were able to find a brick and mortar shop. It's been amazing. We are absolutely super grateful and blessed for the Houston community, for the outpouring of love and support. I started Sipple with a community-first vision, really thinking about what I’d want if I went into a non-alcoholic retail shop, but also doing our best to offer education, resources, and events to connect people who want to join this movement and just let the public at large know they have other options to live a more mindful, intentional, fun, healthy life.
Have you dealt with pressure to drink from any friends or family members since deciding to go alcohol-free?
Initially I faced some pressure from my family, but it wasn't ill-intentioned, they just weren’t used to me not drinking yet. Something else I found is that it can really make people uncomfortable. I found sometimes I’d be at a table and not order a drink and would just feel this ambient awkwardness. A lot of people feel they need a “partner-in-crime” when drinking. They don't want to drink alone, so if you’re not drinking they get uncomfortable, as if me drinking justifies them doing thirteen tequila shots. Not drinking sort of forces people to look at their own behaviour. A lot of people don’t like that, so they project. “Oh, you don't drink? Yeah I tried that, it doesn't work for me.”
Thing's can become very personal. A lot of people are just genuinely curious, and in that case I’m happy to open up and tell them about why I went alcohol free, but sometimes just mentioning you don’t drink seems to scratch this open nerve. People can get defensive. It’s pretty similar to veganism or working out or any other potentially positive life change. On some level people know that’s a good thing to do so it makes them feel insecure that you have made a lifestyle choice they haven’t, even though you’re not telling them they need to make this lifestyle choice as well or anything like that.
Hey, you want to drink? I respect you regardless. I’ve had family members and friends ask if they can drink around me, and it’s like, yeah of course! I have so many friends and family that still drink and it's all good. We still get together for parties, events, dinners, whatever. I'm very respectful of other people's choices as long as there’s reciprocity.
What’s been really cool is seeing other people in my life, like my wife and some family members get interested in not drinking. I’ve had them try out non-alcoholic drinks and they’ve always been surprised like, “oh wow this is actually really good!” So you know, if I ever feel pressure I just stand in my own truth. If they're asking me about my choices, I ask them about theres. Usually that conversation shuts down pretty quickly.
Do you think the societal reaction to not drinking is beginning to change?
It's a lot more acceptable now. Dry January has been a big help for that, but it's extending more now. A lot of people who do Dry January are sticking with it. Dry January gives them an in, an easy way to justify it for the first month, and then they just keep going. Three years, five years, ten years from now I think it’s gonna be a totally different story. I can see drinking being treated a lot more like smoking.
There are tons of great non-alcoholic products out there now, but alcohol still occupies this extremely significant space within our culture. There’s this vision of the pub as the “third place” - the place where community happens. Think of trappist Belgian ales, tequila maestros, or wine country areas like Napa Valley or the Niagara Region. Alcohol is deeply embedded in the cultural identity of these places. What do you think it will take for the alcohol-free space to gain that sort of relevance?
Alcohol has done some amazing marketing over the last 80 years. It’s deeply embedded in society. I recently saw an insurance commercial that made reference to alcohol. Insurance! Every holiday has specific drinks connected to it. Last year I remember Target having back-to-school marketing targeted at mom’s that was just about wine! That whole “mommy juice” thing which is super disturbing.
I believe with non-alcoholic, the change is going to be lifestyle-based first. It’s going to be a slow process. Right now, it’s people getting turned on to this idea of leaving alcohol behind for health reasons, primarily through social media. I think those third places like you mentioned will come. We’re already starting to see it, just a bit, with some restaurants and bars beginning to offer more alcohol-free options, and not just syrup-heavy mocktails but rather genuinely good beverages like Psychedelic Water. At Sipple we’re working to help brands get into restaurants and bars and so far we’ve placed about seven brands in a handful of different bars and restaurants. I’ve been leveraging my connections from my hospitality days to build out this badass non-alcoholic program for some of the bars and restaurants here in Houston. We’d love to get to the place where people have like ten or twenty different options for places to go that serve non-alcoholic options, and they can make a choice not on whether or not a place serves non-alcoholic stuff, but instead on more the vibe they’re looking for, just like people who do drink alcohol do.
Restaurants always ask, “is this going to make money?” and we show them, yeah you can make money selling these. Your margins can be the same. And the demand is there and growing.
For example, we were the non-alcoholic beverage partner for Soberfest here in Houston, which was a music fest at White Oak Music Hall with all sober musicians. There was a huge draw, there were like a thousand people there. There’s no reason all music and sports venues shouldn’t be offering non-alcoholic options.
You mentioned that you lost friends after choosing to go sober. I’ve heard that a few times in these interviews. Why do you think that happens?
It’s sad to say but working in and around alcohol, it becomes part of your identity. So if you don't drink, you don't get invited to stuff anymore. People sort of realize that’s all you had in common. It’s funny though, you’d think they’d welcome having an official designated driver in the group.
I think this is changing too though. I know people that have stopped drinking recently and the reaction now is very different than even just a couple years ago. I have some friends that have been sober for 15 years and they've experienced a lot of change in how not drinking is perceived.
We did this non-alcoholic wine dinner last year, six courses, it was awesome. Afterwards this couple that was there said to me, “we go to a wine dinner every month and we always thought that it was the wine that made it fun, now we realize it's actually the experience, the people.” It’s true. And I think more people are realizing that.
You define yourself as “alcohol-free” rather than “sober.” Why is that?
It's interesting, I've had people come in the shop and they go, “what's your date?” I'm like, “my date?” There’s this assumption that because I don’t drink I must be completely sober and have struggled with alcoholism. I mostly use “alcohol-free” out of respect for the AA community, which I’m not a part of, and because I’m not a hardliner. I’m not opposed to all substances. For example, obviously Psychedelic Water as a brand is pretty pro-psychedelics, and I’m for that. I’m really interested in the use of psychedelics and plant medicine for mental health and spiritual health purposes.
I believe there's a sober spectrum: sober serious, sober sometimes, and sober curious. But some people can be super exclusionary about what they consider sober, so I just use “alcohol-free” to avoid pushback. You get the people who say anything that’s mind altering makes you not sober. Best thing to ask in response: “do you drink coffee?” A lot of the time they do and don’t see the issue with that. Caffeine is mind-altering.
Right, it really ends up feeding into drug war propaganda because ultimately it’s not about whether or not something is mind-altering, it’s about whether it’s historically or currently considered “illegal.”
Exactly, I mean Bill Wilson, the co-founder of AA, literally had the epiphany that led him to form AA while on psychedelic mushrooms. People make sobriety super black-and-white, but it’s not. That’s what I love about Psychedelic Water is you guys are really opening up that conversation and already thinking about the future of both psychedelics and the non-alcoholic space like ten years from now.