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A Toast to Life

Photo by Christopher Gardner

Hooch-free: Ariél champagnes offer an alternative to the holiday glassful.

Teetotaler celebrates the holiday season with bubbling 'sham'pagne

By Richard von Busack

"The choice is simple: either stop drinking or die," the doctor told me. With a heavy heart, I gathered my friends and told them: "Bad news. The doctor says I'm going to die."

Eventually, I was persuaded out of a course that was going to rob me of the physical immortality that is my birthright as a Californian. I dropped out of the guzzling life before I paid the bill I was running up: incontinence, impotence (the dreaded 'brandy droop'--ask Mr. Jenkins' girlfriend about this one), a host of loathsome liver diseases, blindness to the eternal verities and repeating myself.

Hooch-free life has included other unchecked costs: guilt, obsession with bad movies, backbiting, pontification and using big words. I'm still an atheist. As for any new optimism I may have picked up, let me assure you that a sober December still looks like December.

On New Year's Eve I hope I'll be chasing the end of this year away with Blenheim, a rare and delicious ginger ale from South Carolina. It's the best ginger ale I've ever had, available in normal (very gingery), diet and hot. Considering the heat of the normal, the hot must be hotter than the hinges of hell. It's available through mail order: $24 a two-dozen-bottle crate, post-paid from Box 452, Hamer, SC 29847; specify the particular sort you want. (Cock n'Bull, the best easily available and domestically produced ginger beer, is easily found. It's a nice second, but not nearly as brave as Blenheim.)

As a red wine substitute on Christmas dinner, the Trader Joe's Hibiscus Cranberry Cooler, has much of the color, gravity and tartness of wine. The "hibiscus" it's squeezed out of isn't the familiar decorative kind, but a hedge with other pretty names, "roselle" and "Jamaica flower," better known in Mexico than here. It's good for you and it also looks more or less like wine in a wine glass, if you're not up to answering a bunch of questions about how much it's going to cost to get the car fixed, when do you get off of probation, and why you thought it was necessary to get stark naked and read Leaves of Grass through a bullhorn from the top of City Hall.

People who stop drinking tend to miss particular rituals that go along with it; such as beer and baseball, or champagne at 11:59pm on Dec. 31. Alcohol-free beer has been ably faked, especially by Coors, which didn't have a profound flavor to begin with.

The alcohol-free champagnes produced by a few winemakers sound like they are defeating the purpose, and indeed, with the exception of the products of the clean-and-sober Ariél Vineyard, they aren't much to write home about. None of them will ever put Taittinger's out of business, and they do, in fact, contain a trace element of alcohol; one half of 1 percent per volume is the usual figure; which may set off allergies or the wrath of AA sponsors: if you have either, look into it.

St. Regis Sparkling Champagne was more sudsy than bubbly; in flavor it was somewhat insipid, like backwash, as if it had been watered down. I had little use for it. Sutter Home Vineyard's alcohol-free Free Brut had a better nose, more bubbliness and a champagnish flavor, tending from a tang to a sour to almost acrid, ending with a slight but distinctly oily aftertaste--perhaps some sort of scar from where they'd taken the alcohol out. I'd certainly be interested in seeing what the next step would be in Sutter Home's non-alcoholic wines, since the Free Brut was a lot closer to a proper bottle of champagne than the St. Regis.

The Ariél Brut has that lightness, refreshing quality and scintillation on the palate you associate with alcoholic champagne. But this full-bodied champagne didn't finish off on the tongue with a lot of sweetness--sugar being the usual trick to disguise the absence of your friend and mine, alcohol. This on the other hand had a flavor that dissolved into a lot of other flavors, tannin and vanilla and grape.

Ariél's Celebration Cremant was, by contrast, sweeter than Julie Andrews. The fruity nose and the delicate body contrasts with a flavor of an almond or vanilla champagne. Really what it tasted like was cream soda in a tuxedo. You'd probably want to relegate this to accompany some very fancy pastry. It would be a good neo-champagne for brunches, or to make the underaged feel sophisticated.

Certainly, the Ariél non-alcoholic champagnes are the ones to search out for authoritative redoings of the holiday glassful. Now if they could just find some way to get rid of December altogether ...

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From the Dec. 7-14, 1995 issue of Metro

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