In early 2016, a trio of bright young Californians called Mardonn Chua, Josh Decolongon and Alec Lee hit the headlines after announcing that the Ava Winery they’d set up the previous year in a warehouse in the Dogpatch district of San Francisco, was about to achieve vinous alchemy. After identifying and isolating the individual flavour compounds of a 1992 Dom Perignon using equipment including gas chromatography and mass spectrometry, they were going to replicate it without the use of a single grape.
Later that year, they said, they would release 499 bottles at a retail price of $50.00, compared to the $170.00 the Champagne commonly commands in the US.
At the time, I was sceptical. I had no difficulty in believing in the concept, any more than in the possibility of producing palatable synthetic burgers from stem-cells. My problem lay in the magnitude of the task the group had set themselves. None of the lab-grown meat pioneers had claimed to be anywhere near being able to mimic the finest Wagyu fillet. Prestige Champagne like Dom Perignon, by the very nature of the way it is blended and produced, is one of the most complex beverages on earth.
When the 2016 summer release date, and indeed the rest of the year passed without the appearance of the synthetic fizz, I became increasingly convinced that Lee and Chua were peddling ‘vapourware’, a tech industry term Merriam-Webster defines as ‘a computer-related product that has been widely advertised but has not and may never become available.’
During the whole of 2017 I heard little news of Ava Winery, but earlier this year, I learned that it had recently been renamed Endless West, had received a hefty injection of cash—and shifted its focus to replicating whisky without distillation or barrel-maturation.
My lack of faith in Chua and Lee had evidently not been shared by a pair of venture capital firms in Hong Kong and New Jersey, a San Francisco incubator and a number of smaller investors all of whom had collectively ploughed $12.7m into the business.
When journalist Alan Goldfarb visited the warehouse in August to research an article in The Verge, he met Lee who, controversially, told him that “Authenticity does not require a grape… Our product is just as authentic as any other product on the market. For every action a winemaker takes, there’s a corresponding action that we take. What people miss” he continued is that “this is a different expression.”
Despite the startup’s switch in focus from wine to whisky, Goldfarb and his editor were not offered any synthetic spirit to taste. What they were given was a synthetic Moscato which Goldfarb thought had a “plastic aroma and taste, and reeked with artificiality”. It lacked fruit and acidity, he said. “The basic components that always make up the profile of a wine were nonexistent, and the whole flavor was masked by inauthenticity.”
A few weeks later, the synthesisers did better when Lee and Decolongon—a former sommmelier who, extraordinarily, had worked in a natural wine bar—showed off a ‘whisky’ and a ‘Sauvignon Blanc’ to professionals at the annual Bragato Conference in Wellington, New Zealand.
As Wither Hills winemaker Patricia Miranda told Stuff.co.nz, “In terms of the taste and aromatics they need to keep developing but they are on the right path. I believe the whisky was very good in terms of aromatics and mouth feel, the after taste as well, but the Sauvignon Blanc lacked a bit of purity.”
Philip Gregan, chief executive of New Zealand Wine, was more impressed, describing the experience of tasting the synthetic beverages as as “amazing”, and saying that “In terms of the aroma, the wine smelled like a Sauvignon Blanc and the whisky smelled like a whisky.”
The new business’s first ‘whisky’, a beautifully packaged effort called Glyph, is already on sale in a small number of bars and specialist shops. The first US opinion former to taste it was Hannah Goldfield, who wrote about it in the Wall Street Journal. For her, it may have lacked an “ineffable, essential whiskey quality”, but, when tasted blind, she preferred it to Pappy Van Winkle, a bourbon with a cult following, and a price of $1,600.00 on the secondary market.
Whisky is easier to replicate than wine, but my guess is that, with the help of those millions of dollars and a little more time, the nearly 20-strong team of synthesisers will indeed soon be able to copy all sorts of basic wines—the liquid equivalent of stem-cell burgers.
Anyone who doubts the possibility of this happening might like to cast their minds back to the 1980s when Swatch quartz watch movements surprised traditionalists by supplanting mechanical ones. Or to 2003 when a man called Elon Musk founded a company called Tesla. Just 15 years later, almost every big motor manufacturer has launched or is readying itself to launch an electric car, and electric trucks are on the way; 2019 is not a good time to invest in diesel.
Bill Gates and Richard Branson are among a number of wealthy investors who are betting heavily that lab-grown meat will have a similar impact. According to an article in Scientific American, the cost of an experimental quarter pounder has dropped from $300,000 in 2013 to $600.00 today and is expected to be competitive with traditional meat “within several years”. After which, costs will presumably fall further. Which is good news for anyone who is bothered about climate change, as livestock agriculture contributes 18% to greenhouse gas emissions—more than cars. This year may also not be a good time for a long term investment in factory farming.
And so to synthetic wine. Production costs are still high, and there’s all that investment to recoup. And there is no short-term likelihood of it offering any kind of threat to Dom Perignon, or the average $15.00 bottle of Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc. But, just as cowless burgers will compete with factory-farmed beef, I see no reason why grape-free wine from Endless West and others that follow in its wake won’t offer an alternative to the mass of sub $0.60/litre fare that was on offer at last week’s Amsterdam Bulk Wine Fair, possibly at far lower alcohol levels than we are now used to seeing..
And before anyone dismisses the very idea of replacing ’real’ Pinot Grigio with one made in a lab, I’d suggest looking around the average home. The year 2015 saw the production and sale of 15.8bn metres of synthetic leather, most of which goes quite unnoticed. Are you so sure that the same could not be true of palatable glasses of cheap red or white?
Interested to read more about the race to synthesise wines? You’ll find our story on it here.