Wine has been around for around 9000 years, and with 895 million gallons sold in 2014 in the U.S. alone, it’s safe to say the process is working pretty well for everyone.
Mardonn Chua and Alec Lee beg to differ. Last year, Smithsonian reports, the pair were wine tasting in the Napa Valley when a bottle of (much heralded and relatively pricey) Chateau Montelena chardonnay got them thinking: Is there a way to replicate the flavor of wine at a fraction of the cost?
That’s what they’re trying to do with the San Francisco-based start-up, Ava Winery. Their winemaking process takes the grapes out of the equation entirely, using a mix of amino acids, acids, sugars, volatile organics, and ethanol to simulate the fermentation and aging that are the hallmarks of the real thing.
Chua wrote a detailed post on Medium if you’re interested in a deeper dive on the methodology, but basically, Ava Winery aims to “turn water into wine” by combining the same compounds that are in a traditionally crafted bottle (or box, no judgments here). As expected, it’s been a work in progress, with techniques like gas chromatography mass spectrometry now in place to determine the chemical building blocks in say, a rosé or Malbec.
You can currently purchase Ava Winery’s take on the 1992 Dom Pérignon Champagne for just $50 (it would cost you upwards of $150 for the real deal), but the synthetic wine reportedly still has a ways to go to before becoming a convincing mimic. New Scientist did a blind taste test and let’s just say the words “cleaning alcohol” and “plastic bag” were used to describe the faux vino, though one tester did offer that it “tastes better than it smells.”
Time will tell if consumers are interested in hopping on the grape-less wine bandwagon, and critics are of course skeptical about how far it can really go, especially when much of wine’s cachet is related to the land itself and geographical location. But who knows, someday we might be putting a premium on a 2016 pinot from a lab in northern California.