Every January, a large wave of drinkers turn in their shot glasses and spend the month in a staunch(ish) declaration of abstaining. They fill up their glasses with gratuitous amounts of water, green tea and non-alcoholic versions of their regular-proof drinks: N/A beers, toned-down tonics and booze-free bottles of wine.
Regarding the latter: Outside of Dry January, is non-alcoholic wine worth it?
Depends on who you ask.
Purists scorn the party-free pinots and sans-alc Champagnes. “I believe non-alcoholic wines fundamentally lack balance. Therefore, they are inferior to other beverages,” says Grayum Vickers, the sommelier at Richmond’s Longoven. “The best non-alcoholic wines taste only as good as some unbalanced table wines, and I wouldn’t recommend those.”
Alcohol adds body (“Without it, the liquid is less viscous and comes off as thin on the palate,” says Vickers) and helps develop the nose on a wine. “Alcohol evaporation is a big part of what carries aromatics to the olfactory senses,” he adds. “Without ethanol, we lose the ability to observe any hydrophilic aromas such as citrusy flavors in white wines and high-toned berry fruits in reds. For guests looking for non-alcoholic beverages to enjoy with food, I would recommend tea or a non-alcoholic cocktail.”
“I feel that N/A wine is only made to participate in a trend and make someone else money,” chimes in The Betty’s sommelier Joe Billesbach. “It’s just an industrial product, like the different flavors of soda.”
Admittedly, for years, the non-alcoholic wine space was a wasteland. Most options were saccharine and concentrated – far cries from fine wine. “Beer has lower ABV, bubbles, yeast, malt and hops to make up for the flavor, and non-alcoholic spirits are mixed with other things to make wonderful cocktails,” says Ian Blessing, a former French Laundry sommelier and founder of All the Bitter. “Wine is naked, without the benefits of mixing it with anything.”
“For so long the non-alcoholic category was filled with sugar and less than ideal ingredients, and as the category widened it was riddled with bad experiences and skepticism around taste,” says Null Wines’ Catherine Diao. “We still see a fair amount of stigma around the category.”
But there’s a shift in place. Innovation is happening in non-alcoholic wines, and there are increasingly lovely options — high-brow, highly enjoyable wines to be sipped and savored and swirled around a glass. There are now bottles that do a stand-up job of standing in for wine with dinner and beyond.
There are two methods of making these wine alternatives. First, take a standard wine and strip it of alcohol. Alternatively, a juice built up to taste like wine.
Null Wines, a new brand founded by Catherine Diao and Dorothy Munholland, falls in the former camp. They partner with wineries across Europe to craft three bottles (a juicy Tempranillo-Syrah, clean bubbles and a German Pinot Gris-Pinot Blanc) which are then dealcoholized via vacuum distillation. The process preserves the flavors, leaving bright, nuanced wines.
Acid League, a Canadian-based blend of wine “proxies,” takes the alternate approach. Instead of taking a standard wine and stripping out the alcohol, they tweak and tinker with a range of natural flavorings (things like Sauvignon Blanc juice, dried hibiscus, rose vinegar, verjus and Bai Jian white tea) to build up a beverage that sips with the complexity of wine.
This new guard of wine alternatives doesn’t consist of party-free replicas of your standard pinots and proseccos, rather, elevated drinks to sip out of your best stemware. Since launching just over a year ago, Acid League has collected a fervent following of fans and landed menu placements at Gramercy Tavern, The French Laundry and Joe Beef. Chef Sean Brock (Husk) recently came aboard to launch a collaborative bottle.
“There’s a reason there isn’t good non-alcoholic stuff on the market – it’s difficult to make,” says Charlie Friedmann, Acid League’s Head of Wine Proxies. Many of their bottles are released via a more experimental monthly club, with fan feedback gathered and used to inform future products. They’ve made 40 different proxies to date.
Drinkers are catching on. According to the IWSR, in the U.S. market, non-alcoholic still wine volumes grew by 34% in 2021. “From a strictly numerical standpoint, non-alcoholic options might not seem ‘worth it,’” says Ricardo Zarate Jr., the Director of Operations at Valentina. “But the amenity offered to guests that don’t want to drink alcohol is the true value.”
If you don’t drink – permanently or for the moment — these products aren’t merely a trend. They’re a sign of inclusion.
At non-alcoholic bottle shop Sipple, owner Danny Frounfelkner finds that non-alcoholic wine is their top-selling category, with everyone from 20-year-olds to customers in their 70s picking up bottles. “We see parents who want to take a break during the week and folks needing to dial back on their sugar and alcohol intake for medical reasons,” he says.
Friedmann also notes that while Acid Leagues’ core consumer skews female (between 25 and 45), “some of our most ardent supporters and club members are over 65.” There’s a spectrum of reasons why someone doesn’t drink: maybe they’re pregnant, driving, waking up early, cutting back for health reasons or they just don’t feel like it. Maybe they’re keeping a bottle around at a dinner party to help guests get home safely, or offering a glass to guests with a lower tolerance a chance to moderate their drinking.
“There’s also the element of health,” adds Null Wines’s Catherine Diao, “Which isn’t a leading factor but definitely a consideration for lots of our customers — alcohol by nature is more caloric and sugary, so by removing this element our wines offer a similar experience for under 100 calories/glass.”
Still, a scroll through Acid League’s Instagram and you’ll find an occasional comment: “Why not just drink water?”
“Why should drinkers be the only people who have options?” says Friedmann. “These products feel special and interesting. You can sit with the glass and it will grow with you. You can talk about them and bring up tasting notes.”
If you’re asking yourself that question, perhaps this product isn’t for you. “Sure, I can drink water,” Friedmann continues. “I drink water when I drink wine. They’re different things for different occasions. We’re looking to appeal to that broad spectrum of people, and it’s okay if you’re not one of those people.”
For naysayers, Frounfelkner likens it to alternative diets. “If someone hands you a plant-based burger and tells you it’s going to taste exactly like beef, you’ll be sorely disappointed. Appreciate it for what it is instead of what it’s trying to be.”
With that said, here are a few worthy non-alcoholic wine options:
Diao and Munholland’s first release spans three essential bottles: a bright set of bubbles (made with Portugieser and Silvaner grapes), a crunchy Syrah-Tempranillo, and a mineral, Alpine white blend of Pinot Gris and Pinot Blanc. These are radiant, thoughtfully crafted and cool bottles that shine on a dinner table. “We really pride ourselves on the expression of our varietal, provenance and vintage just as if we hadn’t dealcoholized the product,” says Munholland.
Producer Alain Milliat takes grapes from the historic Gaillac region of Southern France and translates them into elegant, single-varietal grape juices that sip like a fine wine. “We love the care and intent Alain Milliat puts into his juices, allowing grapes such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Gamay and Merlot to express their deliciousness without the alcohol,” says Zarate Jr. “The fact that we can serve these juices as by the glass options also allows us to introduce more non-drinkers to the joy of a great food & ‘wine’ pairing.”
This line of booze-free bubbles encapsulates all the excitement of Champagne — mouth-coating bubbles, beautiful minerality and brilliant ebullience, all while skipping the bubbly. Their line ranges from crisp, bone-dry white bubbles (made with Pinot Grigio, Sauvignon Blanc, and Gewurztraminer) to both sweet and brut rose bubbles. Keep a bottle in the fridge for mimosas that won’t derail your day.
Consider this zesty, zingy riesling that just happens to be alcohol-free. Their wines eschew any trend to the non-alcoholic movement – Leitz has been working on non-alcoholic options of Rheingau wines for over 15 years. It’s got all the versatility of a riesling — fully aromatic with bright minerality and notes of white peach and salty sea spray.
The Acids brand has made over 40 different types of proxies since launching just over a year ago — four core flavors, plus an ever-rotating selection released via a monthly club. “We have spent a lot of time refining our product to make something that is more interesting and a better fit for the wine occasion,” says Friedmann. Monthly bottles shift by season and mood (fall’s Nashi combined pear, red miso, Chardonnay grapes, peach, cardamom and honeysuckle), while core flavors highlight always-excellent options, like Sauvage; with crisp apples and cedar and Zephyr; a deep, floral rose for all-season drinking. They’re fun, complex “wines” to drink out of your best stemware.
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