A Bottle of Dom Pérignon for $50? A California Startup is Making it Happen
Most of us are familiar with the story of Jesus turning water into wine; While attending a wedding at Cana, the party ran out of wine. Jesus was then told by his mother that there was no more wine, and that maybe the Nazarene carpenter could do something about it.
Jesus asked the waiters to fill several containers with water and draw out drinks from the just-filled containers. When they did, lo and behold, the water turned into wine–and a great one at that.
One startup in California claims they can do the same: turn water into wine.
Inspiration from a Bottle
Ava Winery, a startup in San Francisco, is breaking the rules of winemaking by creating synthetic vino without grapes. They claim they can turn water into wine in just 15 minutes with science. That’s right. Science. No divine powers whatsoever. It involves combining ethanol and flavour compounds.
The wines produced are different from natural and even vegetarian wines because of the lack of grapes and other essentials of traditional winemaking.
Alec Lee and Mardonn Chua came up with the idea for the synthetic wine while visiting a Napa Valley winery in 2015. There, they got to marvel at a bottle of the iconic Chateau Montelena, the first California-produced chardonnay to beat French-produced whites at the Paris Wine Tasting of 1976. This was the first time California vintners realised they can produce wines that are comparable to, if not better than, French wines.
“I was transfixed by this bottle displayed on the wall,” Chua told New Scientist. “I could never afford a bottle like this, I could never enjoy it. That got me thinking.”
Wine Without Grapes
Wine is traditionally made by fermenting grapes; yeast will break down the sugars in the grape juice into ethanol. This fermentation process also produces several hundred flavour compounds that give each vino its distinct flavor and body. The breaking down process, however, takes a lot of time and produces inconsistent results.
Then a question popped into Chua’s head: is there any simpler, faster way to get that wine and its flavour profiles?
Chua then began playing around with the very chemical basics of wine, combining ethanol with fruity flavour compounds such as ethyl hexanoate, which features a pineapple-like aroma. The first mix was a disaster, but after dozens of unsuccessful concoctions, Chua and Lee now think they have found the right mix that mimics the Italian sparkling white wine Moscato d’Asti. The pair is now focusing on perfecting an experimental synthetic wine that’ll have all the flavour profiles of the Dom Pérignon champagne, minus the hefty price tag.
Fake the Grape
When it comes to artificially mimicking flavours, wine isn’t the first food (or drink) to be copied. There are synthetic versions of lemonade, sugar, and vanilla essence made by simply combining flavour compounds. Wine, however, could be the most complicated to copy.
Ask a hundred sommeliers and wine enthusiasts anywhere and it would be difficult for them to come up with a list of the components that are most important for the taste and finish of a wine, and you’d probably get a hundred different lists. A regular bottle of wine alone has around 1000 unique compounds, which poses a challenge for anyone wanting to identify the characteristics that are fundamental to a vino’s flavour.
For this, the team at Ava Winery combined chemistry with the expert palate of a master sommelier. All wines share the same basic set of compounds, including amino acids, acids, sugars, volatile organics, and ethanol. Ava Winery recreates wines from scratch, matching flavour profile by combining chemical compounds at precise levels.
With the use of a gas chromatography, mass spectrometry, and other scientific tools and processes, the team analysed the chemical composition of champagne, chardonnay, pinot noir, and other wines to identify their key flavour compounds (such as the esters ethyl isobutyrate and ethyl hexanoate), as well as their respective concentrations.
As expected, the Ava Winery technique of winemaking has critics raising their eyebrows. Traditionalists and purists claim that flavour compounds such as the esters and fatty acids in wine will be difficult to mix in a synthetic concoction. These are usually produced by microbes during the fermentation process.
Chua and Lee are unperturbed, however. The pair says their secret is that most compounds have little to no perceptible impact on a wine’s taste or aroma.
Because they don’t need to grow grapes and ferment liquids for a long time, Ava Winery says they can and will sell their products at a substantially cheaper price.
The winery is planning to sell an initial batch of 499 bottles of a replica of the 1992 Dom Pérignon Champagne produced without any grape, yeast, or fermentation. The Ava wines will be sold for $50 a bottle, compared to an original Dom, which sells for over $200 retail.
However, vintners, purists, and other wine experts argue that the terroir and grapes are important in any wine. The natural origins of wines–the terroir, culture, and climate conditions of the area– contribute greatly to the grapes, and by extension, the wines. This is what consumers look for in the vino they buy, experts argue.
What’s in a Name?
One thing that would likely confuse or put consumers off is that these wines won’t likely be labeled as ‘wines’.
There are strict rules defining which products can use this term. In the European Union, only drinks made of fermented grape juice can be called wine, whereas in other places like the US, other fruits can be used.
Flavour, feel, and richness will always be concerns for wines made with a blend of different grapes, more so for those made without actual grapes. At the end of the day, it all comes down to how the drinker feels about the vino.
Even if it’s basically just flavoured water, what matters most is if you like it, drink it.