If Our Wine Expert Couldn’t Drink Wine, Here’s What She’d Reach For

updated Dec 16, 2020
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When people hear that I work in the wine business, I think the image they get is someone who’s facedown in Pinot Grigio all day. And while my profession does give me access to a lot of wine and I do drink my fair share, an important part of my day job is deciding what to buy for the wine bar and shop that I manage (and what to recommend here!). If I’m fuzzy-headed and dehydrated from overindulging the night before, my palate is wrecked. So I’ve learned that moderation is key.

What makes wine so magical when paired with food is its combination of acidity, complex flavors from everything from fruit to herbs, and in red wines, bitterness from tannin. My favorite non-alcoholic drinks have all or some of these qualities, making them a sophisticated substitute for wine.

With that in mind, here are a few of my favorite non-alcoholic drinks and how I use them as a sort of “wine substitute.”

Credit: Diane McMartin

1. San Pellegrino Pesca & Te

My obsession with fun things to drink extends well beyond wine. On a recent grocery trip I picked up this little gem from San Pellegrino. It’s a sparkling beverage with tea and fruit flavor, kind of like an updated version of Arizona iced tea. I’m not one for calorie counting, but I’d rather have my sugar in dessert form, so I like that these are only 50 calories, which is significantly less than most traditional sodas. I recommend drinking this over ice with a squeeze of lemon. The fresh citrus cuts that tinny, peach-rings flavor a bit.

Buy: San Pellegrino Pesca &Te, $15 for 24 cans

Credit: Diane McMartin

2. Lakewood Organic Tart Cherry Juice Concentrate

Meals that include tomato sauce or heartier proteins cry out for red wine. Sometimes I scratch that itch with something with plenty of acidity, red fruit flavors, and a little bit of fizz. To do this, I mix a few tablespoons of tart cherry, unsweetened cranberry, or pomegranate juice with sparkling water. It kind of makes a non-alcoholic Lambrusco. Unsweetened cranberry will be the most tart, tart cherry is sort of in the middle, and usually has sweeter, riper, woodsier notes. These juices are also high in antioxidants, just like my beloved red wine.

Buy: Lakewood Organic Tart Cherry Juice Concentrate, $10.50 at Walmart

Credit: Diane McMartin

3. Fee Brothers Grapefruit Bitters

Investing in a bottle or two of bitters will elevate your mocktail game significantly. But just as many extracts (like vanilla extract) contain alcohol, most bitters do as well — make sure to read the label first. A citrusy flavor like the grapefruit bitters pictured here is, in my opinion, the most versatile, but there is a whole world of bitters flavors out there. I’d recommend looking at the cocktail list at fancy bars or looking through cocktail books for ideas on how to use them.

Buy: Fee Brothers Grapefruit Bitters, $11.63

Credit: Diane McMartin

One of my favorite ways to use grapefruit bitters is to add a few dashes with a squeeze of tangerine or orange juice to sparkling water. It’s really refreshing and a great backdrop to dinner. If you love bitter flavors, try bruising a sprig of rosemary in the bottom of your glass (I just use the back of a knife). Then add ice, a few dashes of grapefruit bitters, and the tonic of your choice.

Credit: Diane McMartin

4. Pear Nectar

This drink is plenty sweet, a little spicy, and very delicious! In a tall glass or a large wine glass filled with ice as pictured below, add 3 to 4 tablespoons of pear nectar and the juice of half a lime. Fill the rest of the glass with spicy ginger beer — the spicier the better! If you want to get fancy, a little candied ginger is a great garnish for this drink. It’s tasty and festive and feels very winter appropriate.

Buy: Goya Pear Nectar, $1.64 for 33.8 ounces at Walmart

Credit: Diane McMartin

I hope these drinks serve as a jumping-off point for your own creative ideas and help you stay hydrated in the new year!

What do you drink instead of wine?