The drink no restaurant dares serve

You can order all manner of exotic beverages at Chicago restaurants. But not nonalcoholic wine. Why?

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Serafin Alvarado, master sommelier and director of wine education for Southern Glazer’s Wine and Spirits.

Serafin Alvarado, master sommelier and director of wine education for Southern Glazer’s Wine and Spirits, identifies the main reason restaurants don’t serve nonalcoholic wine: the perception that it doesn’t taste good enough. But that’s changing.

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Chicago Restaurant Week begins Friday. As a guy who really, really likes to tuck into a plate of excellent chow at one of Chicago’s quality eating establishments, I’m going to depart from my habit of nimbly flitting from one topic to another. Instead, I’d like to pull a thread left dangling after Wednesday’s column on Go Brewing and the rise of nonalcoholic beer to ask a question that has long puzzled me: 

What’s with NA wine? You can order nonalcoholic beer at almost any bar or restaurant. But I’ve never seen NA wine on a menu. Not once. Why?

”From a wine perspective, we’re a little behind,” said Serafin Alvarado, master sommelier and Illinois wine education director for Southern Glazer’s Wine and Spirits, the largest distributor in the United States. “In all these beverage trends, wine is the last to join the party. It’s very traditional, very hesitant, not only from producers’, but from the consumers’ point of view.”

Restaurateurs agree.

“We don’t currently have any nonalcoholic wine,” said Grant DePorter, CEO of Harry Caray’s Restaurant Group. ”There’s no market for it.”

Opinion bug

Opinion

A pity. My go-to NA vino at home is Sutter Home’s Fre. (An ugly name that looks like a typo. They’d have been better off calling it “Home Free”). To me, Fre is soft and round and red, quite winelike and a nice complement to cheese. Connoisseurs disagree. In 2021, the New Yorker’s John Seabrook slagged the NA wine segment in general and Fre in particular.

”Nonalcoholic wines make dreadful placebos,” he wrote. “No wine drinker ... would confuse the nonalcoholic Cabernets made by Fre and Ariel, two widely distributed U.S. brands, for the nectar of the gods. ... A vineyard can’t add a lot of other flavors to make up for the absence of alcohol. You’re left with twenty-dollar grape juice that tastes like a kids’ drink.”

While beer can be brewed to not form alcohol, with wine, the alcohol must be removed, creating off-aromas and revealing unpleasant tastes, particularly in red wine.

”Because of the tannins in red that aren’t being masked by alcohol, whites and roses are viewed as better,” said Alvarado. “Chardonnay, sauvignon blanc, rose are much better. The alcohol masks tannins, and once there is no alcohol, the tannins are exposed. Whites don’t have that. It’s easier to make higher quality, more palatable wine.”

In short, NA wine tastes inferior, to many people. Though restaurateurs like to deliver the news gently.

”The taste profile is not necessarily what you would expect all the time,” said Collin Pierson, a managing partner at Gene & Georgetti steakhouse. “It reminds you of wine, but doesn’t taste like it, exactly.”

”The quality wasn’t there,” agreed Alvarado. “That’s what a lot of wine buyers are concerned about.”

I persisted. Restaurants seem OK serving Sprite. Why not also offer Fre?

”That’s a great point,” Alvarado said, adding that change could happen, eventually, as the NA market booms. 

”The total category, including beers and spirits, represents about 2% right now,” he said. “Fairly small. But it’s a very, very growing category. The market analyst IWSR projects 31% growth by 2024.”

Alvarado expects the NA wine category to take off in the near future, once restaurants and consumers understand what the product is.

“It’s about time for wine to embrace change, and break from the status quo,” he said. “Consumers are more open to experimentation. That’s what millennials and Gen Z are teaching us.”

The challenging economics of the restaurant industry in our post-COVID-19 world might also help boost NA wines.

“You can sell a bottle of Fre for $40, or you can force your customer to order a Sprite,” said Alvarado. “There’s a revenue opportunity. We have to start thinking Big Picture. It’s happening. You cannot hide behind a rock. No alcohol is a topic that extends beyond January. It used to be a Dry January conversation, then forgotten. Now it’s going to be a year-round discussion.”

The good news is: Help is on the way.

“There’s a lot of research,” he said. “The New Zealand government invested a bunch of money, $17 million, for a seven-year study of how to produce low- and no-alcohol wines.” 

So expect a more satisfying NA pour around ... 2030. Quite awhile to wait. Then again, successful sobriety requires taking the long-term view.

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