Petting a bald cat

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Petting a bald cat

Holidays, overindulgence, New Year’s resolutions—some of you may have woken up January 1 and immediately pledged to stop drinking so much or to stop drinking at all. But what do you drink while everyone around you is sipping cocktails or Cabernet? What do you serve to a nondrinking guest at a nice dinner? Water? Soda? Milk? How about nonalcoholic wine?

Anyone who says that nonalcoholic wine tastes like the fully loaded variety is obviously drunk.

Before I was a wine enthusiast, I was nutty about coffee, spending every waking hour (and there were a lot of them) in coffee shops mainlining java. “Drinking decaf,” I was fond of proclaiming, “is like petting a bald cat; there’s simply no point.” Caffeine, I felt, was the heart of the beverage—remove it and coffee lost all meaning. Although there are times when I wish it wasn’t intoxicating so that I could drink a great deal more of it, basically I feel the same way about wine. It’s hard to imagine that it could be any good without the alcohol.

Here’s how to perform an alcohol-ectomy: Take some wine and remove the alcohol. The simple way to remove alcohol from a liquid is to heat it until the alcohol evaporates out. This is the basic idea behind distillation, and it works fine for making something like vodka, where what you want to keep is the alcohol. The problem with wine is that if you heat it to remove the alcohol, you end up damaging all of the stuff that isn’t alcohol, precisely the stuff you want to keep.

So with wine you have to do all kinds of weird shit, like stick it in a vacuum, or twirl it around in a spinning cone column. Or you can run it through a filter with pores so small that only alcohol and water can get through. What’s left is a presumably undamaged concentrate that contains all of the good wine stuff minus the water and alcohol. Add water back and voila! Wine sans sin.

Well, almost. Nonalcoholic wines by law must have less than .5 percent alcohol, but they do contain some, meaning that alcoholics and devout Muslims might not want to risk it. High school kids, however, can have at it; in Virginia you do not need to be 21 to buy nonalcoholic wine and beer. Alcoholics and teenagers who are desperate for a fix take note: By my calculations, it takes 24 to 28 glasses, about five bottles, of dealcoholized wine to equal one glass of the real thing.

So how does it taste? Well, after an exhaustive series of tests, I can tell you that anyone who says that nonalcoholic wine tastes like the fully loaded variety is obviously drunk.

I tried a Chardonnay and a Cabernet Sauvignon from Ariel, which is owned by California winery J. Lohr and claims to make “the world’s best non-alcoholic wines.” If Ariel is the best, then the picture is truly bleak. It’s not that the wines were undrinkable, just that they tasted nothing like wine. Alcohol contributes more to wine than just intoxication; it’s also what makes wine feel rich and full in the mouth. The Ariel wines were watery, ephemeral; they seemed to disappear as I drank them, which all in all was not such a bad thing.

So I have to stick with my belief that nonalcoholic wines, like decaf coffee, are essentially oxymoronic. But I will give decaf and nonalcoholic wine drinkers a tip o’ the junkie’s hat, because one thing you can’t say about them is that they’re not dedicated.

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