A few years ago, I was at a wine tasting with a French couple that imports from low-intervention producers in France. One of the importers told me she was going to be leading a wine seminar at a local restaurant that evening and asked me what I would want to know about wine if I was there. Half-jokingly, I said she needed to answer the question: “What is wine?” She looked confused, and said, “Well, it’s just fermented grapes,” as if I was just some goddamn idiot. She didn’t find it funny at all, which brought me great shame. Luckily, I had an empty glass and was surrounded by open bottles of wine.
While my joke might have been bad, I do still think the question is important. As I’ve started to delve into the torrent of non-alcoholic offerings that has come onto the market over the past few years, I’ve found myself revisiting that question (or adapting it for other drinks, like beer, whiskey, and gin), especially with regard to non-alcoholic wines. So when Proxies, the non-alcoholic line of wine-seeming beverages from fancy-pantry-essentials brand Acid League, exploded onto the scene, I knew I had to try them.
So, what “is” wine?
With the *real* wine we all know and love, grapes (either one single varietal or a blend) are fermented using indigenous yeast or added yeast; the yeast eats the sugar from the grapes and creates natural byproducts like sulfites, carbon dioxide, and, of course, alcohol. The final part of the process, once it’s bottled, is you getting crunk at your friend’s sister’s wedding and throwing chairs in the lobby of a Hilton before being dragged back to your room for the night. It’s an interesting process!
OK, so then what is Proxies, and is it wine?
Acid League, popular producer of all things funky (vinegar, hot sauce, living tonics, koji kits, et cetera), has entered the N/A chat with Proxies, which it calls a “wine alternative”; it’s not real wine with the alcohol removed (like decaf coffee), but rather a deliberate blend of grapes, teas, bitters, vinegars, and other fruits. The bottles are calculated brews of sweet, bitter, and acidic flavors meant to mimic the complexity of wine, but without the processes that actually produce alcohol. Acid League started rolling out Proxies in early 2021, and bottles can already be found everywhere from Chicago’s Foxtrot convenience stores, local wine bars, and liquor stores to fine dining behemoths like The French Laundry and Audrey, whose chef-owner, Sean Brock, actually did a collab with Proxies.
On Proxies’ website, lauded sommelier and winemaker André Hueston Mack—who’s also done a collab bottle—offers tasting advice, like following “The Five Ss”: see, swirl, smell, sip, and savor. I don’t disagree with him in theory, but I would probably add a bit of extra context to that—especially for a product like this. For the record, Mack is a legend and I would never disrespect him, but I did find that a different approach to Proxies worked better for me; treating it like wine was the wrong starting point, at least for my palate. (In fact, I think one of the biggest impediments to N/A wine is calling it “wine” in the first place, but that’s a different conversation.) When I swirl, smell, and sip wine, I’m personally looking for an expression of the terroir—the smells and flavors of the land where the grapes were grown, and the other things grown near them. Wine is transportive in that way. But since literal grapes are only one ingredient of many in Proxies, you aren’t really going to get a sense of any coherent terroir or specific notes outside of the ingredients in the blend. That is not a bad thing at all, but it’s an important distinction to make.
At first, I found the nose strange, but then I realized that since it wasn’t wine, I shouldn’t try to experience it as such. Then, I started to enjoy it more. There are a lot of special editions and collabs that drop throughout the year, but the four core bottles are Sauvage, a crisp white; Pastiche, a rich white; Zephyr, a fruity rosé; and Velvet, a smooth red. The Zephyr was very strawberry and vinegar forward, like a funky, floral rosé; the more acidic and bitter notes felt like a computed attempt to replicate alcohol. The Sauvage had a vinegary nose that was pungent, and it drank very dry, with waves of light juices and tea; I felt there could have been a kombucha vibe to it.
Is Proxies good?
The short answer is yes, extremely—as long as you go into it with an open mind. The Velvet was definitely my favorite—it looked exactly like a red wine when I poured it, and had a very pleasant cherry and dark chocolate nose with some possible fig or date notes. Taste-wise, the Velvet was truly great, something I’d happily order in a restaurant or bar if I was passing on traditional wine. I loved how it was slightly rich and robust, like a classic French red, but also had some allusions to sweeter, more dessert-y flavors that you’d expect in a more accessible conventional beverage. (Since it’s N/A, I’m literally about to have a glass with lunch as I write this.)
I was especially excited about the Pastiche, because it uses Gewürztraminer grapes and was styled like an Alsatian wine, which is one of my favorite regions. The nose, again, was jolting, because it just wasn’t what I expected at all; it was peachy, hoppy, floral—really very nice, just different from a typical wine bouquet. It was a little sweeter and less dry than what I was expecting, but it overall was a delicious sip. This one felt the most like a juice and the least like a wine, but it would still pair super well with something like a lighter pasta, thin crust pizza, vegetables, or a mezze platter. I also predict this would be a hit next time you watch Bachelor in Paradise with your White Wine Gang (you know who they are) and aren’t trying to get too out of control.
Between its diverse options, sleek aesthetic, cool collabs, and placement in some of the country’s most hyped restaurants, it’s safe to say that Proxies are here to stay. While, IMO, these drinks should be approached differently than wine, it is a strong option for wine lovers who are trying to spend more time in the Bountiful Land of N/A. Next time I decide to leave that bottle of Nebbiolo, Gamay, or carbonic pinot noir on the shelf when I grill meat and veggies, cook Italian food, or order in some Thai, I can absolutely see myself cracking a bottle of Velvet.
Part of the fun of drinking wine (and wine alternatives) is figuring out how you like to sip, and what kind of notes you are most attuned to. Whether you love wine, don’t drink at all, or lie somewhere in between, Proxies is an extremely unique and worthwhile line that, if you meet it where it is, delivers legitimately creative and well-crafted drinks.
Buy Proxies at drinkproxies.com.
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