It’s time to face facts: nonalcoholic beverage pairings are not only here to stay, these days they can be as luxurious as wine pairings from a master sommelier. Michelin-starred chefs across the Bay Area are raising the level of their booze-free beverage options, opening up yet another avenue to explore the creative, show-stopping wonders guests have come to expect. These nonalcoholic pairings serve more like another tasting menu built around skillfully crafted and thoughtfully sourced beverages, rather than an afterthought for guests opting out of alcohol.
Bars and restaurants throughout the Bay Area present strong nonalcoholic beverage selections. Polk Street’s Japanese fine dining destination Nisei and the adjacent Bar Iris forage for sakura blossom leaves to use in nonalcoholic drinks, and Oakland’s one-Michelin-star Commis takes the liquor out of its oolong and kombu-based Ode to the Farallons, one of the restaurant’s most recognizable drinks. At modern Russian restaurant Birch & Rye, staff pour a mineral water tasting, for god’s sake. So even as many high-end restaurants maintain 155-page wine lists, there are high-end restaurateurs paying attention to what sober and sober-friendly drinkers want from their decadent dining experiences — and they’ve gone beyond a few well-made mocktails, instead rolling out nine and 10-drink nonalcoholic pairings.
Chris McFall, wine director at Healdsburg’s three-Michelin-star SingleThread, knows how much effort goes into top-tier nonalcoholic beverage programs all too well. Running up to the beginning of the pandemic, McFall and his team were well on their way to launching the restaurant’s nonalcoholic program but had to shelve it until 2022. Now, the destination restaurant and inn sets a high bar for what a nonalcoholic pairing can look like, calling their iteration a “progression.”
McFall says the nonalcoholic beverage program, with all of its quality and flair, is able to match the same commitments SingleThread makes to its food menu: using farm byproducts such as citrus scraps and showcasing seasonal intentionality with rotating offerings. A nonalcoholic Okinawan Old Fashioned gives salt, sweet, and bitter notes just like the traditional whiskey cocktail. And there are more inventive drinks, too. During a recent meal, a torched orange arrived at the table only to reveal a hollowed-out center with a zesty drink lying in wait, and a dry ice-emanating stump transformed into a maple syrup-filled apple juice.
The restaurant even offers two private-label nonalcoholic wines. There’s a “Champagne” of roses, produced with SingleThread’s own yeast strain — reflecting a rise in custom and wild yeasts through industries including beer and bread — and geranium tea, as well as a pinot noir starring cherries (including the skin, pit, and stem), pomegranate seeds and juice, tea, and culinary herbs. Both drinks reflect the tastes and feel of their alcoholic counterparts, even the tannins and legs echo those of traditional wines. McFall and two of his staff, Yoni Korn and Tessa Rissacher, spearheaded the creation of these wines and the restaurant’s nonalcoholic progression on the whole. “I never want someone who doesn’t drink for religious reasons, health reasons, personal reasons, or just doesn’t drink to feel left out of having a celebratory beverage,” McFall says. “Clinking glasses is a ritual.”
Over at three-Michelin-star Atelier Crenn, wine director Rachel Coe relatively recently dove into the booze-less beverage world with both feet. It wasn’t until her role at Atelier Crenn that she’d even encountered the idea of crafting a nonalcoholic pairing, and, as a sommelier, it wasn’t like she had a background in cocktail-making. So, naturally, she turned to wine for inspiration, thinking about dessert wines and flavor profiles that could work in a nonalcoholic application. Invoking a Sauternes, for example, Coe combined apricot, honey, and chamomile for a tea-based drink. Crenn’s nonalcoholic beverage program is called a “clear contemplation” and pastry chef Juan Contreras — who doesn’t drink — worked alongside Coe, contributing his expert palette to various drink iterations. “It’s been a big learning curve,” Coe says. “But I was always concerned about getting a beverage program that was worth the same value of the $250 wine pairing. It has to be more than a tea or Shirley Temple.”
One of the main reasons Coe says she thinks nonalcoholic beverage programs have become more common in fine dining restaurants in part because this upper echelon of restaurants has the financial resources to lead the charge. She highlights the uncommon equipment at Atelier Crenn’s disposal that makes these beverages a reality, for example, a microwave extractor that can amplify specific ingredients such as sunflower lecithin. The restaurant’s partnership with Proxies, a nonalcoholic wine, was successful thanks to Crenn’s clout and relationships in fine dining, too — people will give it a try at Atelier Crenn, though they may be less likely to do so somewhere else. So while Bar Crenn just secured a hard liquor license, the restaurant’s commitment to high-level nonalcoholic drinks won’t go anywhere. “I’m always curious to see where it goes,” Coe says. “There are sweet drinks, savory drinks, and it’s all so exciting.”
McFall says that, in Healdsburg, all the credit goes to Rissacher and Korn, their joint creativity pushing the restaurant to where the nonalcoholic beverage selection stands now. Those two wines serve as anchors to the beverage progression, and the sky is the limit for all the other madcap creations the team will concoct next. “They’re just scratching the surface,” McFall says.