The practical application of commercial malolactic starter cultures of Oenococcus oeni surviving direct inoculation in wine requires insight into the mechanisms involved in ethanol toxicity and tolerance in this organism. Exposure to ethanol resulted in an increase in the permeability of the cytoplasmic membrane, enhancing passive proton influx and concomitant loss of intracellular material (absorbing at 260 nm). Cells grown in the presence of 8øvol/vol) ethanol revealed adaptation to ethanol stress, since these cells showed higher retention of compounds absorbing at 260 nm. Moreover, for concentrations higher than 10øvol/vol), lower rates of passive proton influx were observed in these ethanol-adapted cells, especially at pH 3.5. The effect of ethanol on O. oeni cells was studied as the ability to efficiently retain carboxyfluorescein (cF) as an indicator of membrane integrity and enzyme activity and the uptake of propidium iodide (PI) to assess membrane damage. Flow cytometric analysis of both ethanol-adapted and nonadapted cells with a mixture of the two fluorescent dyes, cF and PI, revealed three main subpopulations of cells: cF-stained intact cells; cF- and PI-stained permeable cells, and PI-stained damaged cells. The subpopulation of O. oeni cells that maintained their membrane integrity, i.e., cells stained only with cF, was three times larger in the population grown in the presence of ethanol, reflecting the protective effect of ethanol adaptation. This information is of major importance in studies of microbial fermentations in order to assign bulk activities measured by classical methods to the very active cells that are effectively responsible for the observations.