PARIS — Augustin Laborde quit drinking during the early stages of the pandemic two years ago. But when things finally opened up, he says meeting up with friends in bars quickly became a frustrating experience.
"My only options were basically sugary soda or fruit juice," he says.
So Laborde, a lawyer with a passion for side projects, started doing some internet research.
Turns out, there was a whole range of alcohol-free beverages on the market; they just weren't on menus.
That's when a light bulb turned on.
In April, Laborde opened Le Paon Qui Boit, meaning The Drinking Peacock — which promotes itself as Paris' first non-alcoholic wine and liquor store. The shop boasts more than 300 bottles of low and zero-proof beers, wines, gins and whiskeys.
"I really value the element of inclusiveness in these products," Laborde says. "Virtually everyone can drink them — we aren't separated by drinkers and non-drinkers."
On a recent day, Laborde offers a tasting of one line of products in particular: wine.
"People are surprised when they see the higher price points," Laborde says, which can be around 10 to 15 euros a bottle, compared to 4 to 8 euros for a bottle with alcohol in Paris.
It all has to do with the non-alcoholic winemaking process, which requires an extra step. After going through the traditional fermentation process, Laborde says the alcohol in the wine is evaporated using a special filtration process.
He also expects the taste to become more refined, as techniques improve and the zero-proof market grows.
"This is definitely not a fad," says Dan Mettyear, who works with the consultancy group IWSR Drinks Market Analysis. According to Mettyear, non-alcoholic wine consumption across the global market has grown by 24% in the last year alone.
"It's all connected to the kind of big wellness trends that we've seen across the world," he says.
There are even vineyards dedicated entirely to producing non-alcoholic wine. One of them is Le Petit Béret, a small French brand headquartered in Béziers, in southern France's Occitanie region, that makes low-sugar, non-fermented white, red and rosé wine and sparkling wines.
But Mettyear says it probably wouldn't come as much of a shock that growth has been slower in France than the U.S. and much of Europe.
"Particularly in kind of like traditional wine markets, it's a bit of a harder sell," he says. "A lot of people have already well-established ideas about what wine is and what wine should taste like."
People like the staff at Le Baron Rouge, a wine bar in Paris's 11th arrondissement that's about as traditionalist as it can get.
Opened in 1979, this tiny establishment is famous for serving wine from colossal wooden barrels.
Sommelier Olivier Collin is doing his annual washdown of the barrels when NPR asks him if he's heard about the rising trend.
He shakes his head in disapproval.
"I don't understand why you would want to try wine without the alcohol!" he says.
"It's the same thing with vegan meat. I'm a vegetarian but I don't understand why we need to eat something equal to meat or to wine or beer! What's wrong with fruit juice?"
But with some persuasion, he agrees to a tasting of bottles procured from Laborde's shop — including a sauvignon blanc and a zero-proof champagne.
Collin and his staff take a curious sniff of the sauvignon.
"It smells like cat piss ... which means it smells like an authentic sauvignon," Collin says with a chuckle.
He takes a first swig.
"It's nice!" he says, surprised.
On the flavor notes, Collin tastes a mix of apple, pear and onion.
"It's fruity and refreshing," he says.
But then Collin goes for a second sip — and isn't as impressed.
"Too sweet ... and definitely doesn't taste like a wine," he says.
The flavor of a wine can change the more it breathes after the bottle is opened, but Collin says he was a bit shocked by how frequently the taste of this sauvignon did. Based on the tasting — and Collin's overall antipathy — it's unlikely you'll be seeing any non-alcoholic wine at Le Baron Rouge anytime soon.
But curious taste testers at an outdoor event hosted by Le Paon Qui Boit disagree with Collin's take.
Charles Vaubin says he's been trying to cut down on his alcohol consumption while his wife is pregnant.
"In France, [wine] is about culture. ... It's about gastronomy and it's interesting to add this aspect in a non-alcoholic product."
In other words, he says, wine traditionalists should realize they all have the same goal — to prove France is producing some of the world's best wines, with or without alcohol.