By Sally Squires
Tuesday, December 25, 2007
The holidays mark the end of one year and the beginning of another -- a worthy occasion for celebration. So it's hardly surprising that wine, beer and spirits flow freely.
Those who can't imbibe (or choose not to, for health, weight, safety or other reasons) often feel left out of the merriment. But a growing number of nonalcoholic wines and beers are giving them new options.
Question is: Are they drinkable? Or would it be better to ask for sparkling water with a twist of lime and wait to sing "Auld Lang Syne"?
To answer that, I got an array of nonalcoholic beverages and drank them so that you wouldn't have to. Since palates can vary widely, I also recruited some of my more daring colleagues -- and my husband -- to taste them, too. All told, we tried four types of beer and 14 varieties of wine. Results are included below.
But first, welcome to the sixth and final week of the Lean Plate Club Holiday Challenge. If you're just discovering the challenge, whose goal is simply to keep weight steady during the holiday season, it's not too late to join in. Figure it this way: If you've already gained a few pounds, you may be able to stave off any additional weight by making adjustments now. If you haven't gained any weight, you'll find tips, tools and goals to maintain your weight until 2008 at http://www.leanplateclub.com/holidaychallenge.
Alcohol can be a huge caloric addition to festivities already celebrated with some of the best-tasting, highest-calorie food available. At seven calories per gram, alcohol contains nearly double the calories found in protein and carbohydrates and just shy of the nine calories in a gram of fat.
As if that weren't enough, alcohol is easily converted by the body into fat. Plus, the diminished inhibition that go hand in hand with drinking can undermine the best intentions to eat smart.
Nonalcoholic brews and vintages generally contain about half the calories of regular beer and wine. They're also very low in alcohol -- about 0.5 percent, compared with 11 to 14 percent for wine and 3 to 10 percent for beer. But because these beverages are not completely alcohol-free, they may not be options for recovering alcoholics or those who must avoid all alcohol.
As for cost, these nonalcoholic beverages won't beat the $3 bottle of award-winning chardonnay you can find at some Trader Joe's locations. But at about $5 to $7 per bottle of wine and $5 to $6 for a six-pack of beer, they're competitively priced.
The taste may also surprise you. It did us, though not every bottle we sampled was a winner.
Beverage producers told me the public has readily accepted nonalcoholic beers. After I opened a cold bottle of Gerstel from Germany, I could see why. It was flavorful and frankly delicious. I sipped it with dinner and found it a great substitute for regular brew. I'd even rate it above the taste of some regular light beers.
On another night, I uncorked a bottle of 2004 Ariel chardonnay and sipped a small glass, just as I might do with regular wine while cooking dinner. At first it seemed a little watery, and I missed the full body of regular wine. But with a little food and a few more sips, it was an acceptable option. My husband, a man with more discriminating taste buds, pronounced the chardonnay "drinkable, but barely."
It was time to recruit others. So on a Friday afternoon, I turned my newsroom cubicle into a mini-pub with brie, Stilton, crackers, olives, pretzels and chips to simulate festivities. It didn't take long for the popping of corks and the clinking of bottles to draw a small crowd.
Flasks may be gone from newsrooms these days, but the appreciation for alcohol lingers. So there was a bit of understandable disappointment at first. "Nonalcoholic wine!" complained one colleague with a bit of disdain. But curiosity soon took over -- along with the free food.
Our taste test was decidedly unscientific and limited by what could be collected by our deadline. We were unable to get Sutter Fre, a nonalcoholic wine, or Twelve, a new beverage made from green tea, in time for our testing. Two of our testers had sampled these elsewhere and were not impressed.
We sipped red, white, rose and sparkling wines from two major labels: California's Ariel and the German-based Carl Jung brand, named after the famous analyst. Ariel is available at Giant, Trader Joe's and elsewhere. Carl Jung can be bought on the Internet ( http://www.carljungwines.com).
Nonalcoholic beer was easier to find. We tested Beck's, Gerstel, O'Doul's and St. Pauli. All are generally sold at liquor stores and groceries that sell alcoholic beverages. Carbonation seems to make up for the missing alcohol in both wine and beer.
Nearly all our testers liked most of the nonalcoholic brews. But the clear favorite was O'Doul's Amber. Comments ranged from "Delicious!" to "That tastes like the real thing." O'Doul's Amber contains more calories than the other nonalcoholic beers -- 90 calories per 12-ounce bottle -- but the rich, hearty flavor is worth it and is still about a third less than regular beer.
The Carl Jung sparkling wine also got top honors. Tasters liked it so much that they wanted more and quickly finished the bottle. We then popped the Ariel Cuvee in the hope it would also be well received. Sadly, it was not. A sharp vanilla aftertaste made it undrinkable for most. We couldn't give it away.
Many of our samplers also liked the Ariel merlot and the Carl Jung merlot. Some thought either could be an acceptable option for red wine, but most still rated them as watery compared with regular red wine. The Ariel cabernet sauvignon was liked by a number of people and much disliked by others. As one said, "I'd rather drink grape juice."
White wines were even tougher to sell. The Carl Jung Riesling got some of the best reaction. Ariel blanc and the Ariel chardonnay were also acceptable to a few. But many didn't like those wines, found them tasteless and watery, and said they wouldn't serve or drink them again.
My colleagues ran out of steam before we tried the Carl Jung Vin Rouge and Rouge by Ariel, so my husband and I sipped them at home. They had a pretty full flavor with the slightly tart taste of a dry red wine. Even my husband liked them.
What we really enjoyed were the Ariel white zinfandel and the Carl Jung Vin Rose. Both were light and pleasant -- close to the real thing.
All this illustrates the wide variability in taste and acceptance of these nonalcoholic beverages. Bottom line: There are plenty out there to sip, but you may have to do a little testing yourself to see what you like.
No Web chat this week or next, but join me online daily at the new Lean Plate Discussion Group athttp://www.leanplateclub.com/group. Eemail@example.com. Web chat returns Jan. 8. Happy New Year!