When is a wine not a wine?

04 May, 2017

Most wineries go out of their way to tell you how natural their wines are.

So, there won’t be any photos of the machine harvester on the company website, the winemaker won’t blog about her latest yeast catalogue, and visitors will be steered clear of the tubs of tartaric acid and powdered tannin on their way to take photos of the handsome barrel cellar or, better yet, the vineyards.

A new Californian winery takes a radically different approach, however, one that makes a virtue of technology. There’s no barrel cellar at Ava Winery. There are no vineyards either. There aren’t even any grapes or yeast. To produce what they call Wine 2.0, the people behind the project rely entirely on a patented process that, they claim, can “produce wines from scratch on a molecular level”.

If this all sounds a bit Willie Wonka, Ava isn’t concerned. The company makes bold claims for its process, which involves analysing the chemical components of a given wine – the water, alcohol, acids, sugars and others – and recreating them from a range of ‘food-grade’ ingredients. In their words, creating “identical chemical copies of the originals, capturing the same nutritional values, flavours, and textures of their ‘natural’ counterparts. Part scientists and part artists, our canvas will be macronutrients like starches and proteins; our pixels will be flavour molecules”.

The company, which is the work of a pair of biotechnologists and a sommelier, is thinking big. It doesn’t simply want to make low-end, low-quality approximations. The ultimate aim is to make reproductions of the great wines of the world – the company’s website references Château Montelena 1973, one of the winners in the legendary 1976 Judgement of Paris. What if they could create that wine, worth more than $10,000, so everyone could afford it and enjoy it again and again?

As Ava points out, many foodstuffs are already synthesised – more than 99% of the world’s vanilla does not come from vanilla beans, and more than 85% is synthesised by the petrochemical industry. It also claims the resulting artificial vanilla is 100% identical to the natural. There’s an environmental benefit, it says, since so many foodstuffs, wine included, are labour and resource intensive.

While the proof of the wine will be in the drinking, the project raises some fascinating philosophical questions. Would the experience of drinking an identical copy of Montelena 1973 or Cheval Blanc 1947 be the same as drinking the original? What about copyright? Would it matter if the synthesis was based on an existing wine, or would it be more interesting to make a synthesised wine on an entirely new blueprint?

There will be plenty in the wine business who will only ever be interested in the real thing. But to me this feels like an exciting moment similar to the beginning of the age of mechanical production in art in the 19th century. I know nothing beats seeing the original of a great painting, but our lives have been enriched by being able to look at reproductions. In wine this would be even more democratising. I’ll never be able to afford a bottle of First Growth Bordeaux. But if someone could bring me even a snapshot of what the experience of drinking it might be like at a fraction of the price, well, why not?

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