Shaking It Up

New mixers bridge wine and cocktail culture, and invite the NA crowd to the party

Stolen Fruit would like to steal a little shelf space away from conventional, high-fructose, corn-syrup-saturated, artificially flavored and colored cocktail mixers. And it’s about time.

Taking a cue from craft cocktail recipes, the Healdsburg-based company uses verjus, a slightly sweet, somewhat sour unfermented grape juice that’s historically been used in European cooking, as a base. Verjus is traditionally made from unripe grapes picked before the wine harvest, and that’s also the inspiration for the brand’s name, says cofounder Doug Provisor.

“We’re sort of taking it from the winemakers before they get their hands on it,” Provisor explains. They wanted something “a little edgy—not wine country cliché, if you will.”

It all started out innocently enough. Provisor, his wife, Susan, and their friend, chef Peter Brown, were all enjoying some drinks one fine evening in wine country when someone posed the puzzler: “OK, what are we going to drink when we’re not drinking alcohol?”

They were inspired by the fresh, nonalcoholic grape juice made by Navarro Vineyards from their Mendocino County Pinot Noir, Gewürztraminer and Chardonnay grapes. “We love them,” says Provisor, “and we couldn’t understand why varietal grape juice isn’t bigger than it was. Then we learned the reasons why.”

The production of a stable, nonalcoholic grape juice product is tricky, since grapes want to ferment. Persisting with their experiments, the partners came up with a product that gets its essence of fermentation from soaking dried grape skins in the mixture. A byproduct of winemaking at Kendall-Jackson, the grape pomace comes from the same source as Barbara Banke and Peggy Furth’s gluten-free WholeVine flour products.

The verjus is sourced from fresh Napa Valley grapes, while the varietal concentrate comes from Lodi and Amador counties. “Those regions are warmer,” says Provisor, “and that drives the high sugars we’re looking for in this type of product. There’s no added sugar in any of them.”

Provisor grows four acres of Grenache around his house in the hills west of Healdsburg, but these are coveted by up-and-coming vintner clients like Jolie-Laide Wines, Leo Steen Wines and Angela Osborne’s A Tribute to Grace Wine Company.

The property itself comes thanks to Provisor’s former career in the music-software business. He’s no longer involved in that, but stays in the tech game with a startup that promises to help young girls learn entrepreneurship via a print-on-demand service.

With their prototype “mocktail” mixer in the jar, the group sought the counsel of Healdsburg-area bartenders. “This is delicious,” they said, “you really have to add this to alcohol!” They advised against focusing exclusively on the mocktail aspect, explaining that from a business perspective, “alcohol is your friend.”

Chef Brown took the setback in stride, and got to work in the kitchen. “I’d get these texts late at night,” says Provisor. “‘Oh, with spirit X, it was fucking fantastic!’ So we went down the slippery slope where everything has alcohol in it.”

Stolen Fruit’s five blends are each based on a winegrape variety, plus a sort of mixologist’s interpretation of a classic cocktail. Jasmine Juniper Viognier, for instance, contains verjus, filtered water, Viognier grape juice concentrate, organic juniper berries, green jasmine tea and dried grape skins.

Sampled straight up, it’s rather tart, with just five grams of sugar per one ounce serving, and a bitter finish from the juniper and the tea. It needs the sensation of sweetness and body that a spirit like Spirit Works Distillery’s new Navy Strength gin provides at, well, Navy strength, or 114 proof.

Matched up one to one and shaken with ice, the Stolen Fruit mixer contributes to a kind of martini that benefits from the sweet character of this distillery’s winter wheat-derived base alcohol (a regular, dry vermouth martini made with the Navy Strength demonstrates quite plainly that you don’t need sugary mixers—especially of the grotesque, conventional variety that have ruled the mixer shelf for too many decades—to enjoy a sweet sensation on the palate), and is plenty aromatic with its double dose of gin and spices. Easy does it with this tipple, though, or you’ll soon be sailing three sheets to the wind, indeed.

One part of Jasmine Juniper Viognier is plenty with two parts Hanson ginger-flavored vodka, also made in Sonoma County. Here, the sweet spiciness of the ginger offsets the bitter, acidic bite of the Stolen Fruit mixer. At $18 suggested retail, these mixers, available at a few local retail locations like Bottle Barn, Oakville Grocery and Wilibees Wine & Spirits, stand a bit higher on the shelf than others, but offer the quality of a $15 cocktail from some tattooed mixologist.

Styled as a Manhattan mixer, like red vermouth, Fig Grains of Paradise Zin makes a stygian concoction in the suggested recipe of two ounces mixer to two ounces bourbon, with a dash of bitters and a maraschino cherry. It’s a potent brew, almost over-the-top, deriving a fig-roll flavor from the same Central Valley supplier that Brown uses as chef for Jimtown Store’s fig and olive spread products.

“According to Peter,” Provisor says, “they’re the only one doing high-quality stuff in California.”

At two parts rye whiskey to one part mixer, the woodiness of the rye cuts in, but it’s still intense and fragrant with a hint of fermented grape skin—the sweet scent of freshly spent grapes heaped in compost piles. Smells like fall in wine country. Compared to most Manhattans, it’s like having shaved asiago for the first time, after a lifetime of shaking dried cheese product from a can.

According to Provisor, the mixers provide a bridge between wine and wine country culture, and cocktail culture—”if people would like a cocktail, but feel it’s a little gauche if everyone’s drinking wine.” Other flavors include hibiscus Grenache, lemongrass ginger Sauvignon Blanc and blood orange Muscat, all paired with nonalcoholic recipes, as well, for those mocktail moments.

Sonoma County Library