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Wagon Ride

A sobering experience with nonalcoholic wines

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Just as surely as booze and Champagne sales surge in the holiday run-up to New Year's, interest in fasts, detoxes and resolutions of sobriety pick up in early January. But not so much that the nonalcoholic wine category, which could be helpful in both seasons, is easy to find.

I found it, all two brands, tucked in between forlorn cases of Glen Ellen and Hearty Burgundy—and I mean the worrisome, gallon jugs of Hearty Burgundy. Come to think of it, that might just be ideal product placement.

Fre wines, made by Trinchero Family Estates in St. Helena (best known for its Sutter Home brand), are not strictly alcohol-free. They contain half a percent alcohol after the rest is removed by spinning-cone technology. In its place, some 20 to 32 percent unfermented grape juice is added for body and sweetness, costing your new diet 70 calories per eight-ounce serving—and don't kid yourself, that's more than what a regular wine serving is supposed to be. The wines are available to preview at the Sutter Home tasting room in St. Helena.

Fre Red Blend ($6) is a somewhat convincing wine-like beverage that would adequately perform that function on the dinner table, and comes with a bright red rubber wristband draped around the bottle, to be worn as a helpful reminder to lay off the sauce, perhaps. But Fre Merlot ($6) is the clear standout, with its enticements of raspberry jam, slight hint of black pepper and lack of hint of air freshener that taints the others. Tannins glom onto the tongue, followed with sweet fruit, like a souped-up Concord grape and raspberry juice cocktail. Speaking of cocktails, this might do in a pinch in a Manhattan . . .

You knew there had to be a Fre White Zinfandel ($6). Enough snickering, I like the concept. You can party from afternoon to evening and never have to face the shame of having got hungover from white Zinfandel. This lightly pink little bevvie offers sobriety with sass, and enough watermelon candy and strawberry flavor to offset the air-freshener taint.

Oddly perfumed as well, Fre Chardonnay ($6) smells like a cashew that's been to the dry cleaners, but clean flavors of mango and lime finish up with a fairly acidic bite—a curiosity to drink, not an outright penance, reminiscent of some of those Chardonnays whose main attributes are being unoaked with no buttery malolactic flavor. Similarly, Fre Sparkling Brut ($7) is fruity and not so offensive that I couldn't finish a glass or even two after the real bubbly was emptied on New Year's Eve.

Sutter Home, 277 St. Helena Hwy. S., St. Helena. Daily, 10am–5pm. No fee. 707.963.3104.

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