What's the point of non-alcoholic wines?

So you wake up one hazy morning, head throbbing and stomach churning, swearing off alcohol forever. I've vowed it a thousand times, but somehow the lure of a great glass of wine washes that promise down my gullet. Many people, however, keep the promise.

Hordes of folks, from expectant mothers to dieters, have sworn off the evil juice, even though they like the taste of wine. They crave something more than soda to sink their tongue into. Enter non-alcoholic (NA) wine. There are many more NA wines these days than 20 years ago, and reports point to higher sales, but after tasting many of them, I wonder why.

Non-alcoholic wine starts off as regular wine. In order to remove the alcohol, wineries filter it, centrifuge it through a fancy machine, or burn off the alcohol like you would in cooking. To compensate for the loss in flavor caused by the high temperatures, they normally add back in fruit juice or flavor additives. It ends up a legally "non alcoholic" beverage when it weighs in lower than 0.5 percent alcohol. But even with this trace amount, it should be said that alcoholics are discouraged from drinking them.

The three biggest NA wineries are Ariel, Sutter Home's Fre (pronounced "free") and Inglenook's St. Regis brand. There are a couple in Europe — Carl Jung from Germany and Meloni from Italy — but they're harder to find on wine-shop shelves. When I bought my selection at a local megastore (it's against my moral fiber to frequent these places, but they had the biggest selection), the NA wines were relegated to the back, where I stepped over several boxes and around a ladder to access them. They were also a bit dusty. So much for the report that people drink a lot of the stuff.

Most tasted like stale sangria that's been soaking in the pitcher an hour, or simply like watered-down fruit juice. By all means, stay away from the sparkling wine. The Inglenook St. Regis even labeled its sparkler "Champagne" — Dom Pérignon's rolling over in his grave. The whites, all made from Chardonnay, were more palatable than the reds, one of which (Inglenook St. Regis) caused my nose to tingle and me to sneeze. Hmmm ...

But I must ask, "What's the point?" I get the pregnancy thing, since the kid could end up riding the short bus, but, dieters, come on. There are between 60 and 80 calories in a 5-ounce glass of NA wine, compared with 120-150 for the fully leaded. So eat one less apple and you've made up your calorie shortfall. Or drink water. I'm not sure what the appeal is of non-alcoholic wine. Perhaps it's the fancy glasses, but as a friend of mine suggested, you could pour apple juice into a long-stemmed wine glass and get the same effect.

For those who want to explore the world of non-alcoholic wines, though, try the ones reviewed below, but taste with caution and an open mind.

Recommended Wines

Sutter Home Fre 2005 Chardonnay (California) Peachy with lots of fruit juice flavor. Grape juice aftertaste. Sw=3. $6.

Ariel 2004 Chardonnay (California) Light, citrusy and tastes very similar to apple cider. Sw=3. $9.

Inglenook St. Regis Reserve Chardonnay (California) Smacks of a diluted pineapple and apple juice cocktail. No aftertaste at all, except a lingering metallic thing. Sw=3. $6.

Sutter Home Fre Premium 2004 Red (California) Mild grape juice with a touch of astringent tannin. Sw=2. $6.

Sweetness (Sw) rating is out of 10, 10 being pure sugar.

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