As New Year’s wishes fade into echoes on social media, declarations of Dry January take their place. People who routinely post photos of trophy wines gracing their dinner tables, or the latest funky pét-nat, or the recent release from the newest local supernova winery, proclaim their determination to abstain from alcohol for a month, detoxing from holiday debauchery and recalibrating their livers for the year ahead.
Inevitably, there is a backlash. Determined drinkers defiantly declare their intention to keep on drinking through January (and later, Sober October), come hell or high branch water. Their declarations are often judgy, seasoned with an unnecessary expletive or two aimed at the abstainers.
In this tempest in a spit bucket, the Drys come across as virtue signalers, while the Wets are unnecessarily defensive. They remind me of a line by W.C. Fields, which I remember as, “Quitting drinking is easy! I’ve done it dozens of times.”
Social media is our modern diary. Not a secret confessional hidden away from prying parents or spouses, but a public testimonial for the world to see. Our workout routines, daily miles run or walked, pounds lost, a month off from drinking — these posts represent personal accountability. We’ve told the world, so we have to do it. They’re also accomplishments we friends should applaud. And don’t worry, fellow Wets, our drinking buddies will be back in February.
I haven’t written about Dry January before because alternatives for wine fiends are lacking. That may be changing.
On Jan. 3, Miller Family Wine Co., a leading producer in California’s Central Coast region who is best known for owning Bien Nacido Vineyards, unveiled a new line of dealcoholized wines called Hand on Heart. Available now online, they will be in stores this spring, including Safeway stores in Northern Virginia. The line features a cabernet sauvignon, a chardonnay and a rosé from the 2020 vintage for $15 a bottle.
“Dealcoholized” is a regulatory term for wine reduced to less than 0.5 percent alcohol by volume. This is typically done through a process called reverse osmosis or by running the wine repeatedly through a centrifuge-like device called a spinning cone. That’s rough handling — not only does it remove alcohol, which provides body and texture to wine, it also removes more delicate flavor components. That’s a main reason dealcoholized wines have been disappointing in the past.
Hand on Heart uses a process called GoLo, developed by a Santa Rosa, Calif., company called BevZero. A single pass through the GoLo system can reduce a wine’s alcohol from 14 percent to less than 0.5 percent, and flavor elements are captured and returned to the wine. Natural flavor extracts are added to bolster the winelike character of the final product.
“Our goal was to have something with tannins, structure and acidity, and flavors as winelike as possible,” chief winemaker Jonathan Nagy told me in an interview.
Hand on Heart’s target market is the “sober curious” consumer, says Tommy Gaeta, Miller Family’s director of marketing. “Someone who likes and appreciates wine, but on occasion doesn’t want alcohol,” he explains. “We want a drink that fits the occasion without tasting like sugary grape juice.”
Hand on Heart has competitors. Stella Rosa, the popular Italian brand of slightly sweet, slightly fizzy wines, is also introducing a zero-alcohol line in the U.S. market this month. Giesen, from New Zealand’s Marlborough region, introduced Giesen 0% Dealcoholized Sauvignon Blanc about a year ago, marketed through Whole Foods Market and Total Wine & More. The wine, bolstered by 6 percent unfermented sauvignon blanc grape juice to give it body, proved so popular that the winery is expanding distribution this year and introducing a dealcoholized rosé for spring.
British wine writer Matthew Jukes chafed at the lack of wine alternatives on occasions when he just didn’t want to drink alcohol, so he developed his own alternative. He describes Jukes Cordialities as a “hybrid of a shrub and a switchel.” Jukes used organic apple cider vinegar to macerate fruits and other flavors he routinely identifies in wines. They come in 1-ounce bottles; you mix half with a glass of still, sparkling or tonic water, swirl and voila! You have a wine alternative. Because there are no grapes or fermentation involved, there’s absolutely no alcohol and few calories — only about 16 per 100 milliliters when mixed. Three are available in the United States, a white, red and rosé. Sales are mostly online now, as distribution to restaurants and retail outlets has been hampered by the pandemic.
“It ticks the box for the youth of today who are extremely body and health conscious, and gives them the drink they never knew they were missing,” Jukes told me in a phone call from London, during a break from tasting 2020 burgundies. “It’s for those who want something elegant to match with their food.”
The tiny bottles are very portable, so you can “resuscitate a cold bottle of water anywhere,” including on a plane or train where good wine may be unavailable, Jukes adds. “And you can tell a bartender, ‘I’ll have a Jukes 1 in a tall glass with some ice, please,’ and suddenly you’re James Bond, in charge of your drink.”
Whatever your reason for abstaining from alcohol — Dry January, designated driver, religion, physical or mental well-being — these wine alternatives let you enjoy the occasion without feeling left out — or judged.
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A previous version of this story included an error on the alcohol percentage in dealcoholized wine. It is .5 percent. It has been corrected.