We’ve grown used to the sight of non-alcoholic beer on a restaurant menu or a few token O’Doul’s thrown into the summertime cooler. But what about non-alcoholic wine? Two of the largest wine producers in California—J. Lohr and Sutter Home—make and sell a combined total upwards of 200,000 cases a year; Carl Jung Winery in Germany has been producing non-alcoholic wine since 1908 and now sells more than a million liters per year, exporting to more than 25 countries. But exactly who is drinking it?
First, the usual suspects: the designated drivers, the pregnant moms, those who struggle with alcoholism or have serious health concerns. That all makes sense. But Steve Peck, the red winemaker at J. Lohr who also oversees production their non-alcoholic line, Ariel, pointed me in two less expected directions: religious communities and, of all things, gentlemen’s clubs.
Let’s start with the one you’re really interested in. The laws vary, but in most states, strip clubs that offer full nudity are not allowed to serve alcohol, though some still try. Show Palace in Long Island City has been in a well-publicized legal battle with the state for a liquor license, but in the meantime its list offers just under 50 non-alcoholic wine options (not to mention paninis and organic salads). A bottle of red, white or rosé will run you about $50, but a bottle of sparkling can get up to $100. For example, Sutter Home’s Fre Brut—which I can tell you is literally indistinguishable from Sprite, save for the weird green olive pimento aroma—goes for $85. At BevMo it sells for $6.49.
Ariel was the first non-alcoholic producer on the U.S. scene back in the ’80s, turning quite a few heads in 1986 when their Blanc—a chardonnay blend—beat out several real whites to win the gold medal at the Los Angeles County Fair. Word spread beyond the wine world via both culinary and Christian endorsements.
Tara Burns, a former stripper and author of Whore Diaries: My First Two Weeks as an Escort, says she only wishes the clubs she once danced in carried N/A wines: “In a lot of clubs you have either an obligation or a financial incentive to get the customers to buy you a lot of drinks.” Girls who sell a lot of beverages are often given commissions or reduced stage fees. “There’s only so much soda or orange juice you can drink in a night, and some customers got bitchy about buying me $10 waters.”
Girls exposed to the non-alcoholic wine option fared better. Mara, a former dancer from Florida, worked at a club that had “one type of non-alcoholic wine: white zin.” She says it was “ingenious.” She could simply ask a guy to buy her a glass of white zinfandel—very likely from either Ariel or Fre—and since it wasn’t something men were in the habit of ordering, “the cat stayed in the bag.” The club gets an incredible markup, the client has bought his girl a drink and the girl has fulfilled her duties while still keeping her wits about her. Win, win, wine.
At the opposite end of the spectrum, non-alcoholic wine has also made its imprint on the religious community. Ariel was the first non-alcoholic producer on the U.S. scene back in the ’80s, turning quite a few heads in 1986 when their Blanc—a chardonnay blend—beat out several real whites to win the gold medal at the Los Angeles County Fair. Word spread beyond the wine world via both culinary and Christian endorsements: First there was Graham Kerr, the celebrity chef and star of The Galloping Gourmet, who abandoned his tipsy television appearances after finding religion. He became a brand ambassador for Ariel and has created several menu pairings for consumers (a cup of N/A chardonnay tossed into curried chicken; “cabernet sauvignon” added to Texas chili).
Later there was Dr. Reginald Cherry, a doctor who has “devoted his efforts to helping Christians stay healthy so they can go forth and tell others about Jesus and lead the lost into ‘His glorious light!’” In his book, The Bible Cure: A renowned physician uncovers the Bible’s hidden health secrets, Dr. Cherry writes: “God, in His infinite wisdom, has now shown us how to get the benefits of wine without the alcohol; Linda and I use a non-alcoholic red wine made by Ariel (a type of wine known as a cabernet sauvignon)…You should drink six to twelve ounces daily to gain…all the benefits God intended without the detriments.”
In an effort to include all parishioners, some churches have begun to use non-alcoholic wine during communion, though this is a touchy subject across several denominations. According to The Daily Mail, most Baptist churches now use grape juice as a stand-in for the blood of Christ, while many Methodist outposts have made the switch to non-alcoholic wine: “We are committed to church being a safe space for people, and one way is by ensuring they don’t encounter alcohol.”
The Church of England still stands by its original canon: “The bread, whether leavened or unleavened, shall be of the best and purest wheat flour that conveniently may be gotten, and the wine the fermented juice of the grape, good and wholesome.” (Incidentally, there has also been some controversy around the use of gluten-free wafers, but that’s another essay all together.) On the other hand, the Catholic Church—as well as the Episcopalians, who take their cues from the former—has provided the most leeway on the subject, essentially dictating that presiding priests or pastors create their own Eucharistic adventure, which can include N/A wine if desired.
So, it’s clear that, however unorthodox, there’s a market for these wines. But there are also additional, internal benefits for wineries as well. A winery can make use of fruit that might not meet the standards for their regular wines, and they can also sell a product that doesn’t bear the brunt of steep alcohol tax, which grows higher alongside your ABV. “You’re no longer under the watch of the TTB,” says Peck, speaking of the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau. “Suddenly, you don’t have the compliance cost or the taxes associated with it.”
The dealcoholization process is most often done using something called spinning cone technology. Wine is fed into a tall column resembling something between a rocket waiting for takeoff and a stovepipe, traveling down through a series of spinning cones run on centrifugal force. This force transforms the liquid into a very thin layer so that the alcohol can vaporize. Ariel, however, uses a different process: one of cold filtration that removes the booze gently without every bringing the wine above cellar temp. No matter the process, all non-alcoholic wines retain a smidgen of alcohol—usually between .2% and .5%, about the same as a glass of orange juice or kombucha—so you still have to be over 21 to purchase. You can find them at many liquor and grocery stores across the country or online, though Ariel is the only one “clean” enough to be carried by Whole Foods. (Most producers use potassium sorbate as a preservative to keep the fruit from fermenting, but Ariel has gradually phased that practice out.)
This brings us to what is perhaps the most important question of all: How do these N/A wines taste? To be honest, not great. At a 4th of July BBQ, I led a group of friends through a tasting of Ariel and Fre wines, comparing their chardonnays and merlots. In both cases, Ariel won out, offering a beverage much more akin to wine than Fre’s glorified juice. But they all came off as too light and too sweet, lacking the structure and depth only alcohol can provide.
Earlier this month, Ariel actually announced that it would discontinue four of its six non-alcoholic offerings, explaining that they want to focus on their two most popular varietals: chardonnay and cabernet sauvignon. But this isn’t a sign that the non-alcoholic wine world is slowing down anytime soon. A spokesperson from Fre reported that their annual case sales have jumped by 40,000 in the last two years, and new producers continue to pop up in both Europe and the U.S. Even Japan is getting in the game. In 2013, a company there released Nyan Nyan Nouveau, a non-alcoholic play on Beaujolais Nouveau made up of cabernet grapes, Vitamin C and catnip “made exclusively for cats.” This fact only strengthened the tagline of EminaZero, a new line of non-alcoholic wines from Spain: “Be captivated by a universe of non-alcoholic sensations.” If a market upheld by religious folks, strippers, and felines isn’t the very definition of a non-alcoholic sensation, I don’t know what is.