If you are enduring Dry January – meaning you've decided not to consume alcohol for the entire first month of 2021 – know that you're in good company. Right now, according to a study by Forbes Magazine, more than 6.5 million people are off the sauce, at least until February 1 (which is two weeks from Monday, not that anyone is counting the days).
Personally, I’m having a dry-ish January. Although I go through long periods of time without drinking alcohol for various different reasons, most of which are between me and my therapist, I have had a few glasses of the good stuff in the past couple of weeks. But mostly, I've been abstaining or giving non-alcoholic wines a whirl.
I got the idea to try NA wine from my coworker, Devan Shepherd, who is at the end of her first pregnancy. She mentioned she had tried a few different brands of alcohol-free wine earlier in her pregnancy, but at the point of our conversation, she was over it.
"I have tried the brand FRE and Ariel. Between the two I highly prefer the FRE options over the Ariel ones. I tried the Ariel cabernet and in comparison to the FRE cabernet, I thought the Ariel one defintely tasted more like juice and didn't have the "tart" type aftertaste that makes the FRE wines taste more 'wine-like' if that makes sense," says Shepherd.
I tried FRE, Ariel and St. Regis bottles of wine, all of which for me ranged from meh to garbage.
In general, whites were better than reds and sparkling whites were the best of all. None of the reds had the after-bite of real wine, which I've come to appreciate as my favorite part of a good Cabernet Sauvignon; nor did they offer any of the depth of flavor that afficionados pore over and enjoy discussing. They all reminded me of juice, some more than others, and were mostly just too sweet and / or too watery.
The best white that I discovered is St. Regis Chardonnay which I picked up curbside from Total Wine in Greenfield. It wasn't flavorful, but it was at least slightly dry and not too sweet. But it still lacked oomph. It had no edge. It was Mr. Rogers when you want Robert Downey Jr.
Katie Espinosa is the Fine Wine Director for Johnson Brothers Wisconsin and, prior to that, she worked for many years in restaurants as a manager and sommelier. She says the increased popularity of Dry January and “sober curiosity” in general has encouraged the production of more alcohol-free wine, even if it has much room for improvement.
“There is definitely a trend toward moderation and health, which for some, can include less alcohol consumption,” says Espinosa. “So the effort to make better products in any category is important, and NA wine is no exception.”
According to Espinosa, there is a difference between non-alcoholic wine and de-alcoholized wine, which will affect the drinking experience – and might affect which word to look for on the bottle.
“NA wine often never had alcohol in it, or very little. De-alcoholized wine is made like traditional wine and had the alcohol removed, usually by vacuum distillation, or reverse osmosis, similar to purifying water,” she says.
However, regardless of how the alcohol is removed, wine without it will lose the mouth feel and weight many drinkers enjoy. Also, the lack of fermentation, which is the process of producing alcohol, will dull flavors, aromas and textures.
“In NA and de-alcoholized wines, the alcohol is replaced with concentrated grapes, sugars and juice to make up for the loss when the alcohol is removed and lack of fermentation," says Espinosa. "Many of the aromas in wine are carried to the nose through evaporating alcohol, so naturally, some of that is lost when the alcohol is removed."
In short, this is why most NA wines taste like juice, because they are, more or less, juice.
However, Espinosa is optimistic the market will continue to improve as events like Dry January become more popular. And in the meantime, there's always good ol' sparkling apple juice.
"As a kid who grew up wanting to try the 'fancy stuff,' we were always offered Martinelli Sparkling Cider. Don't rule it out. It's good for young and old alike," she says.
Molly Snyder started writing and publishing her work at the age 10, when her community newspaper printed her poem, "The Unicorn.” Since then, she's expanded beyond the subject of mythical creatures and written in many different mediums but, nearest and dearest to her heart, thousands of articles for OnMilwaukee.
Molly is a regular contributor to FOX6 News and numerous radio stations as well as the co-host of "Dandelions: A Podcast For Women.” She's received five Milwaukee Press Club Awards, served as the Pfister Narrator and is the Wisconsin State Fair’s Celebrity Cream Puff Eating Champion of 2019.