The Controversy of NA Wines
Let's get into the controversial topic of Non-Alcoholic beverages. I know, cue the groans and gasps of disbelief. The topic of this particular beverage class has intrigued me over the last couple years as more and more clientele began asking for NA options outside of the bartender's go-to mocktails. Yes, people do drink non-alcoholic beers & wines for different reasons. Some reasons are for healthy lifestyle choices (refer to my previous post about the taboo of sugar & how diet fads influence certain perceptions on not just sweet wines, but wine as a whole) and others are mental health related & a response to alcoholism. Though at one point in my life beers were the only non-alcoholic variation I was aware of, we will be discussing my recent experiences with that of the wine variety.
Non-Alcoholic wines aren't anything new, but it's a product that has begun to pick up steam. As people seek to find new ways to cut calories or participate in dry January, these kinds of products will always have a following dedicated to them. Boy, does society enjoy a hot trend to follow! It won't really matter if the product is good or bad either. It begs the question: should restaurants, bars, retailers, etc. have options that cater to that clientele? Someone who is abstaining from alcohol should have options that tick every box, and not just have to settle for mocktails, right? That was the question poised to a panel I was a part of earlier this year on food & beverage trends. An attendee was quite adamant about beverage programs needing not only built in mocktail lists, but also offerings that were wine and beer alternatives. A colleague & friend of mine on the panel with me leapt at the chance to engage the topic since her perspective was tied to her family's experience with alcoholism. Her issue was that if the products, despite being non-alcoholic, mimicked the flavors and experience of wine TOO much it could cause a recovering alcoholic to then fall into a new form of addiction (or worse and go back to the original source). Interesting perspective but singular & circumstantial to the wider audience of non-alcoholic wines who likely are just seeking to further a "healthier lifestyle".
For me, the biggest issue surrounding non-alcoholic wines is quality. I'm not talking the quality of the production methods per se but, rather, the quality of the finished product. The NA wines tend to veer into flavor territories that are nothing like the varietals they seek to mimic. Often times coming across, in my opinion, as natty wines gone awfully, awfully wrong. I've had a few reps over the last two years bring me NA wine options that were hot off the press from celebs & all-star chefs alike. None of them were great as I wholeheartedly expected. Yet, no line-up made me cringe as hard as a particular Iron Chef's NA wines did. Holy cow, her Chardonnay reminded me of all the times I opened unpopped bags of popcorn kernels and unearthed the synthetic-buttery mess within them. I couldn't wrap my head around the idea of why anyone would want this bastardization of wine grapes in lieu of the real thing. With the quality of the product seemingly not being up to par in the eyes of many beverage professionals, this particular trend is doomed to end almost as quickly as it began....or is it?
Different methods allow for the production of non-alcoholic wines. It can actually be as simple as dressing up unfermented grape juice, believe it or not! Wine can be made non-alcoholic by heating the wine to a certain internal temperature and burning off the ABV until only .5% remains. The incredibly expensive & timely method is that of reverse osmosis. This is when a wine is completely fermented and vinified like normal, has the ethanols removed and the wine aromas/flavors captured into a concentrate of sorts. The versions made through reverse osmosis are likely how many of the better-quality products are made if keeping the nature of the original wine is the goal.
Then you have products like Acid League's Proxies. A NA beverage that combine the thoughtfulness of winemaking without trying to truly be wine. Rather, it becomes a beverage class of its own or a "proxy" to wine. The scientists behind the product are focused on gut health, and combine wine grapes with their line of holistic vinegars and other botanicals to manufacture wine tasting notes. The resulting product tastes like amped up fruit juice with high levels of acidity. I went into the tasting experience of these skus by removing myself as a wine professional, and approaching the item more like a culinarian tasting a new food item.
After tasting through the line-up of three bottles they sent to me, I can definitely say this was a better tasting experience overall in comparison to the previous ones. I still didn't feel like it reached the height I wanted it to, but at the same time my palate was able to accept this particular product for what it is. The Velvet flavor that utilized Cabernet Sauvignon grapes and wolfberry vinegar showed the most promise. Notes of cacao nibs & a savory back end on the palate were interesting enough. I also did feel a sense of cleansing in my gut as a result of the unique ingredient combo outside of just the grapes (chinese black tea, chicory, and cascara to name a few). The Proxies might actually be better served as flavor agents in mocktails and NA spritzers, especially when paired with other beverage items that could tame their acidity.
Did you know there are entire wine shops in Los Angeles dedicated to exclusively selling non-alcoholic wines? Clearly the trend has a strong enough following, and will be hard to dismiss in the coming years. One of these days I'll make it out to LA and find a non-alcoholic wine I can sing nothing but praises about. Until then, I'll stick to the rivers and the lakes that I'm used to.