A Modest Proposal: Let’s Call Wine What It Is (or What We Want It to Be)

The excellent timatkin.com website recently featured an article by fellow Master of Wine, Christy Canterbury. In it she asks a very important question: Is an imitation wine better than a fake? It’s not a trick question. Wine forgeries, and the fraudsters who create them, are very much in the news lately as many of us who follow wine are aware. But Canterbury’s article references two other entirely legal, sleight-of hand operators whose work is just as vexing to purists. Both entities purport to be adept at reverse-engineering well known wines via “proprietary” chemical and sensory analysis. The catch is, they sell  (and intend to sell) their fantasy wines for much less than the originals; anything from 1947 Cheval Blanc to Kendall-Jackson “Reserve” Chardonnay.

While the implications are clear and seriously concerning, I don’t think there is cause for alarm just yet. Here’s why.

The Integrated Beverage Group of Colorado (IBG) is the parent company of Replica Wines, the main player in the replica wine space. Their promotional material boasts of its “proprietary” data base that catalogues the characteristics and chemical composition of the wines they are attempting to replicate—Kendall-Jackson “Reserve” Chardonnay and Meiomi Pinot Noir, among others.

From the company website:

“Here is how it works. We partner with family farmers to craft world class wine which is benchmarked to the taste and aroma profiles of your favorite brands. We then send this wine to our on staff Master Sommelier to assure the highest quality possible. Meanwhile we have scientists analyze the wine for its taste and aroma match (sic) to your favorite brand. Taking our cutting edge scientific insight and combining it with the quality analysis of our Master Sommelier, our award winning winemaker then crafts their masterful replicas.”

First, I’m at a loss why any one would take “world-class wine” and reverse-engineer it into a Meiomi Pinot Noir facsimile. That’s kind of like making a forgery of a forgery. IBG is taking grapes that are carefully grown by family farmers in order to make a dumbed-down version of a dumbed-down wine. And for what? To sell it more cheaply? Forgive me, but this does not seem like a great business plan. Fortunately, IBG has other assets in the traditional wine space and may be looking at this as R & D.

Second, there is nothing proprietary about the science required to populate their database. Their cache is only proprietary because no one else has bothered to seek similar data. If they did, there is nothing IBG could do about it. That probably tells you something about the perceived value of this undertaking. There is a very low barrier to entry, yet there is no one else rushing in, at least presently. That’s probably because the market is unproven and probably unsustainable. Smart money usually avoids this kind of risk. In reality, IBG is no more than a negociant with a sophisticated lab and an MS on staff.

The second player is San Francisco-based Ava Winery, now known as Endless West. This start-up began with the rather preposterous idea that it could duplicate the world’s greatest wines with chemicals—no grapes, no yeasts, no fermentation. After some disastrous taste tests they have shifted gears to focus on brown spirits which, by their own admission, is a much easier assignment. A recent injection of cash from angel investors doubtless came with conditions: put wine on the back-burner and get something to market, pronto. That product, Glyph, a synthetic “whiskey”, is to be released this fall.

Endless 2

Without proprietary assets or patents these companies are highly vulnerable and will be raw meat for the wine conglomerates once their technology and potential markets are proven. Don’t get me wrong. I don’t doubt that current science makes these ambitions feasible, but that is no guarantee of business viability. Science like this is already hard at work creating a wide range of “fake” foods that may prove useful, or even necessary, in our future world. But wine seems a low priority at this point and except for the odd-ball, dare I say “disruptive” start-up, I don’t see much happening in this space until the big boys get involved.

Despite my skepticism, Ms. Canterbury’s challenge to the wine world stands. How should we interpret all of this, and what can we do about it?

I propose that any discussion of “future” wine first focuses on a realistic definition (is it even made from grapes?) and then how to deal with any derivative products. I want to emphasize, I don’t object to innovative products, or the science, only to the potentially harmful blurring of categories. I believe it is imperative to fire-wall “heritage” products like wine from technology-derived extensions. The Slow Food movement provides a good template and inspiration.

I would propose four layers (I can hear the snickering from here):

First, to the category Ambient Wine I would include all that we currently understand to be “Natural Wine”. That is low-yield, organic or biodynamically grown grapes of origin, native yeasts, zero inputs, made without manipulation, and whatever else is agreed upon within our current scope of understanding. The term “ambient” is non-judgmental and fairly reflects the intended meaning of natural. The category makes special note and values above all the traditional styles and processes that have proven themselves over hundreds if not thousands of years.

Second, to the broad category of Natural Wine I would include wines of origin made from healthy, sustainably raised grapes of low to moderate yields, using native or naturally derived yeasts, with minimal processing. In other words, the broad category we currently think of as artisanal, fine or collectible wine that does not fit into the Ambient Wine template. The term “natural” as used here is intended to distinguish it from the more heavily rectified, non- or broadly-denominated blends that are manipulated to achieve certain flavor characteristics or which include additives and stabilizers not permitted in natural wines.

Third, is the broad category of Designer Wine which only requires the use of grapes or grape concentrate. Manipulations are freely allowed and experimentation is encouraged. Relegation to this class does not condemn the wine or brand to second-class status, as it is precisely within this class that price-testing across broad markets is most feasible. For those of us worried about the stagnation of the wine industry and its lack of innovation, this category is for them.

Fourth, is the category Synthetic Wine which need not be made from grapes at all and would include the contributions from the bio-engineering space.

All categories will be required to include ingredients on the label and further nutritional information on a website, QR code, or other means easily available to the consumer and/or journalist.

Of course this is simply an outline and a place to start. It is my opening contribution to the discussion Ms. Canterbury has called for. I look forward to other ideas, criticisms, and inevitably, some catcalls.

My next instalment will broach another sticky connection between wine and science. Stay tuned.

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