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Divine Libations for Non-Drinkers

Sublime grape juices and non-alcoholic wines

Treat your guests as though they were gods, and wonders will happen.

January is all about divine hospitality—giving it, rewarding it. After all, this bleakest month was named for Janus, the ancient Roman god of beginnings and endings, and it was hospitality that earned him his famous second head. (Saturn, the god of sowing, bestowed it as a thank-you gift after Janus sheltered him from Jupiter, the wrathful god-in-chief.)

Resolved: To offer my non-drinking guests something more flavorsome than bubbly water.

The nectar doubtless flowed freely chez Janus. Alas, mortals must sometimes avoid alcohol. When I cater cocktail parties, I urge clients to include Navarro Vineyards’ sublime sterile filtered Gewürztraminer grape juice. Folks flip! 

Through a family connection, I’ve been sipping Navarro juices and great wines since I first visited the Northern California winery 27 years ago. Straw color, silky, this Gewürtz tastes of lychee and rose. Some foodies call Navarro’s Gewürtz and Pinot Noir juices the only wine alternatives. Because they’re unfermented, they have zero alcohol, and they’re also great for kids—just don’t expect young tasters to go back to the cloying stuff that comes in little boxes.

Navarro is topnotch, but it’s not the only terrific wine alternative. Sweetwater Cellars, in Oregon, offers a world of grown-up grape juices, such as organic Cabernet from Didier Goubet in Bordeaux—clean, earthy, complex. I enjoy it straight from the bottle or lightened with sparkling water. Sweetwater also offers juices with the sparkle built in. It can provide kosher quaffs you won’t find at the supermarket—just the thing for a festive Purim without the hangover.   

Sometimes confused with high-end juices, but definitely different, de-alcoholized wines go through the same fermentation process as other wines. The alcohol is then removed, much the way caffeine is removed from coffee to make decaf. These near-wines have a trace of residual alcohol, usually .2 to .5 percent (the same proportion as in non-alcoholic beer). They are legally, if not chemically, “alcohol-free,” and in most places may be sold to minors. Some non-drinkers feel they must stick to the juices, avoiding drinks more reminiscent of wine; others enjoy the range.

Can anyone explain why most New York City restaurants pour near beers and none (to my knowledge) pours near wines? As a class, they are superior to their beer analogues; yeasty Einbecker, to my palate, is the only wonderful non-alcoholic beer. The best near wines are delicious: dry, nuanced, inexpensive and a third as calorific as wine. I’ve never loved a cup of decaf, but I’d rather drink the best de-alcoholized wine than a middling glass of wine.

Ariel Rouge, the biggest-bodied of Ariel Vineyards’ three de-alcoholized reds, has solid tannins and cherry notes, perfect with grilled meat or lasagna. Chilling it brings up the complexity. Carl Jung’s stars are a Vin Blanc with a notable Muscadet mineral freshness just right for shellfish and cheese, and a merlot that makes a coq au vin no one will believe is coq sans vin.

Both houses (Ariel’s vineyards are in California, Carl Jung’s in Germany) produce de-alcoholized sparklers worthy of your best flutes. Ariel Brut Cuvée is excitingly austere at first sip, turning apple-y but keeping an edge. Carl Jung Peach Sparkling Wine, with its playful bubbles, is a Bellini-in-a-bottle, with remarkable real-fruit flavor. 

Several dozen New York City shops—including Astor Wines & Spirits, Village Vintner, and K & D Wines & Spirits—stock Ariel (for a list, email me at Carl Jung, warehoused in Pennsylvania, promptly fulfills online orders.

Nancy Weber’s novella Ad Parnassum, a mosaic-like homage to Paul Klee, has been published by Underground Voices.  Her story Little Dan will appear in Between the Shores, edited by Alex Freeman and T.C. Mill for the New Smut Project (March 2015).