Take too much fun from the fun bank at Thanksgiving? With more holiday revelry coming up, we have three little words: alcohol-free wine.
The notion of tinkering with perfectly good vino makes true wine lovers blanch, but alcohol-free wine has some advantages over its boozy cousin, including far fewer calories: about 15 to 25 calories for a 4-ounce glass, compared with about 90 for a glass of Chardonnay or Cabernet Sauvignon.
Alcohol-free wine also should confer some of the health benefits one gets from moderate regular-wine consumption, says Fergus Clydesdale, head of the department of food science at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. The same antioxidants found in regular wine also exist in alcohol-free wine. "If the same grapes were used," Clydesdale says, "the wine would have the same kind of phenolics."
These polyphenols -- which fall under the broad umbrella of antioxidants -- include the almighty resveratrol, a compound in red wine that's been receiving recent media attention.
Typically, alcohol-free wine is made by extracting the alcohol through a filtering or vacuum process, while leaving the other components intact. By law, the wines must be less than one-half of 1% alcohol.
Although some of the health benefits of wine have been tied to the alcohol itself, in the aggregate, removing the alcohol is a plus, says Joy DuBost, a food scientist and nutrition expert for the Institute of Food Technologists, a society of food science professionals.
"While it does appear that alcohol in moderation decreases the effects of cardiovascular disease," she says, "it can also increase your calorie intake; triglycerides, which is another blood lipid; your blood pressure; and possibly your cancer risk. You have to look at the total picture."
And the public is buying it. Ariel Vineyards sold 1.2 million bottles of alcohol-free wine last year, according to Craig Rosser, sales marketing director for Ariel and export director for J. Lohr Vineyards & Wines, Ariel's parent company.
Even small-fry Carl Jung wine, which is made in Germany and available only online in the U.S., sold 20,000 bottles in the U.S. last year, says Ray Hermiston, the company's Internet sales manager.
Alcohol-free-wine drinkers include pregnant women, designated drivers and people who need to abstain for medical reasons or simply don't like alcohol. Ariel Vineyards caters to this last group. "Our core customer is someone who hasn't developed a taste for wine, and they like their beverages sweet," Rosser says.
Ariel has the distinction of producing the only dealcoholized wine to win a gold medal at a formal competition against regular wines. Sure, it was in 1986 at the Los Angeles County Fair, but, still, the wine must have been the Secretariat of the bunch.
Which brings us to the issue of flavor and drinkability.
Someone with a long history of wine drinking who tries these products won't exactly be seeing stars, says Clark Smith, co-owner and chief enologist for Vinovation Inc., a Sebastopol, Calif.-based "fix-it shop" that adjusts alcohol and other components in wine for winemakers. "It's hard enough to find a really great, rich, soulful Cabernet or Chardonnay with the alcohol," he says, "and it's almost an impossible challenge to deliver a really great Cabernet or Chardonnay without alcohol. Alcohol is important to the roundness and richness and sweetness of wine."
Alcohol-free wines can, however, better replicate the taste of white Zinfandels and sparkling wine, Smith says. "They can fairly and inexpensively make a white Zinfandel that might taste even better than an alcoholic Zinfandel," he says. When selecting nonalcoholic wine, "you're better off looking for sugar, bubbles and fruitiness."
Manufacturers recommend serving the wine at the same temperature as traditional wine: chilled for whites, room or cellar temperature for reds.
But how do these wines taste? The Health staff and Times wine writer Corie Brown weighed in on four brands.
After swirling, sniffing and spitting, the testers concluded that the primary thing these wines lack is what is known as "mouth-feel" -- a certain thickness and the rich sensation of flavors bursting in the mouth. "Alcohol knits a wine together and gives it weight," Brown says. Without it, the wine tastes thin and watery. The wines are fairly inexpensive, with prices ranging from $4.95 for Sutter Home's Fre wines to $7.49 for Ariel.
Here's what the tasters (all regular drinkers of alcoholic wine) had to say:
Ariel Vineyards (J. Lohr)
2005 Cabernet Sauvignon
A group favorite among the reds. A little stronger than the others, with an actual fruit aroma -- something sadly lacking in many of the others. "You could almost fantasize that this is real wine," said one taster.
One taster felt this came closest to a real wine flavor, compared with the other reds. Others found it a bit vinegary. "They're trying," said one taster, without enthusiasm. This, in fact, was the consensus on many of the wines.