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Getting Into the New Year’s Spirits : Holidays: Nonalcoholic drinks have that festive fizz, but they won’t give you a hangover.

TIMES WINE WRITER

New Year’s Eve almost always means headaches the next morning. But it is possible to imbibe without the consequences. Now that the state of California considers you legally drunk with a .08% blood alcohol level, it’s prudent to consider some of the following suggestions.

--Nonalcoholic Beer:

The technology to make these is improving and now a number of excellent ones exist. My favorites are Firestone from Santa Barbara and Clausthaler from Germany. However, many others are available and selling well this holiday season. Among the best of the rest are Moussy; Sharp’s; Buckler (from Holland, made by Heineken), and Kaliber from Guinness.

--Nonalcoholic Wines:

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Few of these products have much flavor--that means they’re best served well-chilled and drunk before a dinner or after, not with food.

The reason for the thin, watery taste of these products: no alcohol. Some producers solve that problem by leaving sugar in the wine. This adds texture, but then the stuff is too sweet.

J. Lohr Winery of San Jose has produced Ariel, a line of dry alcohol-free wines, for a number of years. Despite advances in the technology of removing the alcohol, none of these products excites me. The benefit is that they have less alcohol than fresh orange juice.

The best of them is Ariel Blanc de Noirs, a sparkling nonalcoholic wine that is relatively dry. It sells for about $8 to $9 a bottle, which I feel is pretty steep for a wine of such low character.

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Another product seen recently is called Spencer, a fairly dry, medium-bodied sparkling wine, also about $8.

--Sparkling Grape Juices:

These haven’t been fermented, which means most of the sweetness is still in juice, making them (again) not terribly successful with food. One of the better ones I’ve tasted recently is Hallcrest Sparkling White Zinfandel (about $3 a bottle). It is not terribly sweet and the finish is clean.

Martinelli sparkling apple juice is a well-known and widely sold alternative, but it’s much sweeter than others. One that’s a little drier, but rich, is a French sparkling cider, Triomphe de Normandy Cidre, which retails for about $1 for a 250 milliliter bottle.

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Also from France is a line of sparkling juices from Bel Normande--a Sparkling Apple Cider at about $2 a bottle, and Sparkling White Grape Juice, Red Grape Juice and an Apple and Black Currant Juice. All sell for less than $3 for a 750-ml bottle.

An excellent slightly sparkling wine without alcohol is Toselli, a Muscat-based wine that tastes like a light Asti Spumante. It is about $7 a bottle and is an elegant dessert accompaniment.

These products go down so easily (because they are sweeter) that you should have more of them on hand than you would standard wine.

--Lower-Alcohol Wines:

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One of the lowest alcohol products is called Electra by Quady, with 4% alcohol, but it’s expensive ($9) and sweeter than some.

The best lower-alcohol wines on the market today, in my opinion, are the Trocken sparkling wines from Germany, called Sekt. Trocken in German means dry, and these wines are a marvelous alternative to sparkling wines with 12% alcohol. German sparkling wines marked Trocken usually have 50% lower alcohol (between 7% and 9%) than standard sparkling wine, and are dry enough to match well with food.

Indeed, all German Kabinetts and Trockens and Halb-Trockens (half-dry wines) are dry enough to match with food and have much lower alcohol levels than other table wines. A number of Los Angeles-area merchants say they are having great success this holiday season selling Trocken and Kabinett wines from the great 1989 vintage.

For those concerned about total alcohol intake as well as intoxication and hangover, here are a few things to remember:

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* If you are hosting a party and want to serve standard sparkling wine, do what I do: Buy something bone dry. Sweeter sparkling wines go down much faster. Also, serve it well chilled in flutes . . . they hold less.

* The longer you spread out your drinking the better the body can absorb and deal with the alcohol. This means that an amount of alcohol taken over a five-hour period creates less of an effect than the same amount taken in an hour.

* Consume less total alcohol by choosing lower-alcohol products or mixing higher-alcohol products with water or mixers.

* Some wine lovers take charcoal capsules before going to a party because the charcoal absorbs alcohol and allows it to enter the system more slowly.

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* Studies show that alcohol enters the bloodstream more slowly when you consume it with food than without. Wine and beer seem to be the beverages that react best with food. (A study by Drs. Chauncey D. Leake and Milton Silverman, published in the 1966 book, “Alcoholic Beverages and Clinical Medicine,” showed that the equivalent amount of alcohol taken as wine and beer entered the bloodstream more slowly than did the alcohol contained in vodka or gin, and that the alcohol enters the bloodstream slower with food than without.)

That’s why so many people advise eating something before drinking. Some people eat bread and cheese before consuming any alcoholic beverages--carbohydrates seem to do a good job of slowing down the absorption of alcohol.


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