Saturday, 11 September 2010

Whining on a Rain Day

We had great intentions to go hiking today, but it was pouring all morning, so gave up on the idea around noon (note: it cleared up by 3 and the afternoon was quite nice. Go figure). Spending a lazy day on the computer updating my cookbook to the 2nd edition, I ran across the following, which I wrote several years ago. Though I submitted it to one or two publications, it remained languishing on my hard drive without an audience until today. That's the advantage of a blog. I can write whatever the heck I want.

My name is Derek, and I have been sober for 63 days. Not by choice mind you, and to be quite frank, a lack of wine in my life sucks. A medical condition and its treatment has meant that my 24 years of wine cellar building, and my developing expertise in the subtle nuances of perfect martini shaking, are now but a fond memory.

To be honest, I have forgotten what else one drinks with a meal. It has never occurred to me to ask “what fruit juice goes best with prime rib,” but I am forced to now. Wine compliments food in ways I don’t think I ever dreamed was possible. A great New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc, like an Oyster Bay or a Marlborough, is such a natural fit with grilled scallops that I couldn’t even imagine one without the other. Until now. A glass of water – while otherwise an entirely delicious beverage – just doesn’t have the same impact.

There is no shame in cranberry and soda. However, desperate for some alternative to sugar-filled fruit juice, I decided to experiment with de-alcoholized wines. Allegedly made with real wine, with the alcohol “gently removed,” most promise through labeling all the good stuff that wines really have: full body, crisp acidity, firm bouquet, and the like.

My first attempt was the Inglenook St. Regis Cabernet Sauvignon ($8.99 at CoOp), since by preference I mostly drink red wine. As an award-winning home winemaker, I make some pretty fine white wines, but my reds are quite frankly pretty poor. Well, the worst red I have ever made is better than the St. Regis. Its utter lack of body is almost exceeded by its uniformly unpleasant chemically affected flavour. It bears little resemblance to any Cab I have ever consumed. It is full of ingredients that as a winemaker I know are used to try to “fix” problems in wine. It has added glycerin, which is used to improve body (it needed more). It has grape juice added, which is used by home winemakers to increase flavour (it needed more). It has sugar added, which home winemakers use to correct the acid-sugar balance (and I wasn’t sure there was any acid or sugar in this wine before they tried to fix it). In short, my home winemaker’s hat said it was a failed wine, and my palate tells me they failed to fix it.

It was with my first revolting bottle of the St. Regis that I learned that de-alcoholized wine needs refrigeration, since alcohol is a natural preservative. Well, there’s nothing quite as appealing as an icy cold Cabernet Sauvignon, is there? I found, however, that the flavour of this artificially simulated, wine-like food product was actually improved by chilling. But not much.

My second attempt was the Australian Loxton Cabernet Sauvignon ($7.49 at CoOp, but frequently on sale for $5.99). I was attracted by it’s lack of ingredients: just dealcoholized wine and some sulphur dioxide and ascorbic acid as preservatives/oxygen scavengers. Since I add these latter two to my own wine, it looked promising. And relative to the Inglenook, it was a better wine. Not good, mind you, but better. The chemical overtones remained, but the nose at least implied a Cab. Still very short on body and lacking in acid, it was approaching wine-like in style.

On weekends, my life frequently revolves around champagne (okay, Henkel Trocken in tiny bottles) and orange juice with breakfast. So I tried the Carl Jung De-alcoholized Sparkling Wine ($8.50 at Sobey’s), which they would call “champagne” if the French would let them. Now we were getting somewhere. Aside from moderately less acidity, which gave it somewhat less crispness in the mouth, this was unleaded Henkel Trocken. Mixed with OJ, it was just fine. Stand alone, it was quite reasonable. Not my vintage Vieuve Cliquot, but not bad.

Sadly, while some people perceive champagne goes with every meal, it just doesn’t do it for me paired with a great tomato sauce. I pressed on. Realizing “cold was good” to kill the problematic flavours I had been experiencing, I tried the Loxton Semillon-Chardonnay ($7.49 at CoOp, but frequently on sale for $5.99). The nose was definitely Semillon, and there was clearly some evidence of Chardonnay character. Sort of. Unfortunately, that unique “chemical” flavour was still there, more noticeable as the wine warmed up in the glass. Call this one “palatable when icy cold.”

Still passionate about red wines and having little to lose, I tried the Carl Jung De-alcoholized Merlot ($8.50 at Sobey’s). Turns out I had more to lose than I thought. This is the best of a sorry lot of reds, with a somewhat Merlot nose, and at least a palatable flavour, though not really Merlot like. It’s best served at very cold cellar temperature, and as a result, not for me.

Generally more impressed with the Carl Jung offerings, I tried the Carl Jung Riesling ($8.50 at Sobey’s). With a very pretty Riesling “wet slate” nose, I had high hopes that were nearly met for the wine itself. Many Riesling flavours were there, but like most of these wines, the acid-sugar balance was a bit out of whack, with the wine just lacking the necessary crispness. The similarly priced Carl Jung White Wine lacked a specific varietal character in the nose but was nonetheless quite a pleasant beverage, very reminiscent of the multitude of generic German Tafelweins on the market. Both wines are the stars of a poor slate of players.

I am not done. There are other products from other suppliers, and I will labour on in my quest for palatability. But I wonder what other foodies who are non-drinkers drink with their meals. What fruit juice does compliment prime rib or scallops? I have been told of the wonders of “elderflower water,” though it sounds more like something one would put in perfume than in a glass, and so far I have not been able to find it. Despite their 1.6 B$ advertising budget, sorry, Coke’s not for me. However, I’m so new at this game that I must be missing something. Having braved the first 63 days of my new-found sobriety alone in my non-drinkedness, I’m pleading for help for the next 3,650. Please post a comment with some suggestions. There are only so many sugary fruit juices one can drink, and being lactose intolerant, milk is not an option.


Post script: I came off the meds (they didn't work) after about six months. Six long and painful months. I never did find a substitute beverage.

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