Coming Soon To Wine—Replicating Terroir in the Bottle

Laboratory Test Tubes in Science Research LabIt appears that one day, probably in my lifetime, people in labs will have the capability of replicating perfectly any bottle of wine made anywhere on the planet. That is to say, science is moving us closer to the day when a bottle of DRC, Petrus, Screaming Eagle or any other wine can be perfectly duplicated in a lab—all the way down to the texture, aroma and taste.

When this happens it will not be the first time that ingenuity has led to the creation of very authentic looking and acting knockoffs. Go to Canal Street in New York City and get yourself a Gucci bag or a Rolex for a fraction of the manufacturer’s suggested retail price.

Two companies have recently gained wide attention for their efforts to reproduce well-known wines. Replica Wines and Ava Winery were recently featured in Popular Science Magazine. Replica Wines is producing knockoffs of the likes of The Prisoner, Kendall Jackson’s Vintners Reserve, Meomi Pinot and Erath Pinot among others. They are using a wine base for the starting point then applying chemistry and the science of flavor compounds to do the rest.

AVA winery isn’t even using wine as a base, but is rather applying chemistry to make wine out of water. Their first project is to duplicate the 1992 Dom Perignon. Neither have, based on accounts, produced exactly replicas yet. But they, or others, will eventually.

But wine is a little different from watches and handbags isn’t it. Wine is something that can be ingested and disappeared. It’s meant to be. In addition, a great majority of wines are understood to be authentic representations of a place, a piece of time, and an individual’s idea of what the wine should be. Wine is a unique product that if used correctly will provide a set of human beings with a chance to experience something very specific and authentic though the act of consumption that in turn will obliterate that which they sought to experience.

But what is the meaning of  re-creating a representation of a place, of a specific moment in time and of an idea, all at will, all in a laboratory? To me, the idea of recreating exactly a specific wine that is already mass produced with an eye on a model without connection to a place or person, for example The Prisoner, is of no real consequence. The fact that I can purchase a knockoff of Dove soap somewhere at half the price of the real Dove soap doesn’t give me a second thought. Who cares? Dove soap is cheap tool. The fact that I can get a replica of it at half the already cheap price satisfies very few of my basic or more complicated needs.

But the needs that are satisfied when we buy a rare wine or a very small production wine that is produced from grapes grown on a small plot of land in land in Burgundy or Napa or the Willamette Valley during a specific growing season by a person intent on creating something unique and highly representative of that unique place and year…well, that’s a bit more complicated, isn’t it.

One of the deepest thinkers now working in the wine industry suggested to me that these kinds of wines play an important role in providing people access to something very rare in today’s world, but something that, as human beings, we all crave and covet: the authentic; the original; the source of the creative moment.

Today, more than ever before, in a world that is defined by globalism, instant communication, mass production, derivative commercialism and global brands, it is more and more unlikely that what we surround ourselves with and what we experience will possess much of anything that can be called authentic or original, let alone the product of a creative moment. And yet, as modern human beings, we crave and covet, perhaps need, access to the experiences derived from close proximity to such things.

Given this, what is the meaning of knowing that the bottle of wines we cherish for its authentic representation of real creativity and its uniqueness and its true connection to a place and person can be recreated in a laboratory; recreated down to its texture, its feel on our palate, its specific flavors, aromas, finish, its molecular structure?

I’ve always been absolutely convinced that the embrace by many of “Natural Wine” has been a very specific response to living in a world that is seemingly so small now and that constantly brings us face to face with  infinite identical copies of things and stuff. Globalism, mass communications, instant access, and the fact that everyone everywhere can experience the very same thing at the very same moment breeds in us the need to find something to embrace that can’t be duplicated or shared outside a small circle. Natural Wine combines both a sense of authenticity and originality with scarcity. So does, for that matter, so many wines made by small producers around the world that don’t adopt the “natural” moniker but are essentially the same kind of thing.

Does the ability to exactly recreate and the act of exactly recreating these important and meaningful wines diminish their current role of providing wine lovers with a necessary access to the authentic?

My boy, Henry George, who just turned two, will one day be a able to experience the sensory attributes of what are today, and what surely will be in the future, the most coveted wines in the world. He will have the opportunity to experience the wines of DRC, Petrus, Screaming Eagle and the like not because I left him a huge inheritance or because he accumulated huge amounts of money and will be able to afford to buy these rare wines. He will, instead, be able to easily purchase exact knockoffs of these wines.

It’s surely a commentary on my own disposition that this future makes me a little sad. There is something for me about the idea of the unattainable that soothes me.

Of course, once any wine can be duplicated down to its very molecular signature, the original will become even more valuable and more coveted. The most famous wines from the most famous vineyard will become more like Monets, Picassos and Rembrandts than they even are today. For those who will be able to afford them, why not buy the original, stow it away in a safely guarded vault, then imbibe the knockoff to see exactly what it is you’ve invested in and squirreled away?

And by the way, given this future, and given the fact that in this future proximity to the authentic and original will be even more difficult to achieve than it is now, the seemingly high cost of land and vineyards in places like Napa Valley looks exceedingly cheap.



3 Responses

  1. Egmont Labadie - June 6, 2016

    Dear Tom,
    in my mind you are stressing the point on the very essence of wine’s emotion, uniqueness and true intrinsic value.
    That is why I think you should’nt be sad : wine is so powerful, and has been for so many centuries, and is so diverse and unpredictable, that no attempt at duplicating it in all its complexity and inner life will never have the slightest chance of replacing it. Which sound business would try to replicate all the great wines of all countries and years available today ? Maybe they will try to replicate some, a hundred, even a thousand…And still it will be very expensive to do and to market. But all the great wines of all years ? And sincerely doubt it. And even so, the duplicatas certainly will never have the ageing potential the real ones have.
    Last but not least, with great wines being caught by the natural revolution, who will want to poison itself with artificially duplicated wines when the true ones are becoming every year more harmless?
    I maybe am fooling myself, but it seems to be a lost cause…
    All the best and have a good bottle of patiently aged fermented grape juice 😉

  2. Tom Wark - June 6, 2016


    Thanks for he thoughtful comment.

    I tend to think that not all the great terroir driven wines of the world, or even a small portion, need to be replicated for the impact to be felt. It would merely take confirmation of the ability to do so that will do the trick.

  3. Tone Kelly - June 7, 2016

    I am not holding my breath waiting for this to happen. If one considers we don’t know much beyond water, alcohol, a few esters and acids of what really is in the wine bottle. There are hundreds of compounds some of which require decades to be revealed (try tasting a new DRC echezeaux with a 20 year old version). I suspect we will get “close” but in this case close is not good enough. Just my personal opinion.

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