Meet the 20-Somethings Who Are Copying the World's Rarest Wines Without Using Grapes
What if you could identify the molecules that comprise a 1973 Chateau Montelena and then reassemble them from scratch? Ava Winery is here to find out.
It's a Wednesday afternoon in late August, and I'm going wine tasting.
But I won't be hopping in a limo and cruising through Napa with a #squad of chardonnay-craving college girls, nor will I sip merlot with Paul Giamatti types and spit it into a sterling silver bucket. Instead, I walk up to a loft building in San Francisco's Dogpatch neighborhood, spend a few moments ascending in its elevator, and walk into a disheveled, carpeted, sparsely furnished office unit. There, I meet 28-year-old Alec Lee, the CEO of Ava Winery.
There will be something else different, too, from any other wine-tasting experience I've ever had: The wine won't be made from grapes.
"We're sharing the space right now, but we're moving soon," Lee tells me as we step over loose papers that littered the floor—remnants of startups past—and circumvent what I can only describe as an autonomous, standalone lab on one side of the room, a system of beakers, tubes, machinery, and metal thingamajigs stacked atop an approximately two-foot by three-foot table.
"Is this your equipment?" I ask.
"No," Lee tells me. "That's the other company's. They're called Clara Foods. Their primary thing is, like, yeast-based egg whites. They're also a startup." (On its website, Clara Foods describes itself as "a Bay Area venture capital-backed company working towards a disruptive advance in food technology by creating the world's first animal-free egg white.")
After squeezing through another doorway, we reach the corner of the office where Ava Winery is making wine, or something like it. And when I say corner of the office, I mean very literally a corner. All of your ideas about wine coming from sprawling vineyards under the Provençal sun must immediately be vanquished if you are to embrace—or to understand—what Ava is doing. There are test tubes, bottles of pure grain alcohol, eyedroppers, and baggies of assorted sizes full of white powders and crystals.
They're making wine—molecule by molecule.
Like many Silicon Valley startups that are looking to disrupt everything from transportation to food delivery to sexting, Ava Winery hopes to disrupt our old friend vino.
The wine industry is millennia old, and while technology and methods have improved over time, the basics of wine have remained the same since the days of grape-stomping in the Roman Empire. You grow grapes; you consolidate their juice; you ferment it; you wait; you drink it.
None of this is true with Ava's product—except, ostensibly, the drinking part.
A couple of years ago, Lee, along with Mardonn Chua—Ava's 25-year-old chief technology officer, whom he met through their studies in the biotechnology program at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver—were doing one of the Bay Area's most essential tourist activities: a Napa Valley wine tour. They stopped at a winery featuring a bottle of 1973 Chateau Montelena chardonnay, the California wine that famously defeated all of its French competitors in the 1976 "Judgement of Paris."
"In many ways, [it] was one of those key sparks of New World wine legitimization," Lee recounts. These days, bottles of the wine are few and far between, and easily fetch upwards of $10,000 a piece.
It was this air of exclusivity that intrigued Chua, who thought to himself, What a shame that no one really knows what these bottles of wine taste like anymore. He then considered that wine is, after all, just "a collection of molecules" like anything else. What if he could identify those molecules that comprise a 1973 Chateau Montelena—or another wine that's only accessible to the ultra-wealthy—and then reassemble them from scratch?
That was in November 2015, when Chua and Lee were working at a stem cell company, so they already had access to a lab and much of the equipment that they needed to attempt such a task. After a couple of months of swirling around acids and sugars and alcohol, Lee felt that they had gotten to a point where their "wine" wasn't good, per se, but it wasn't bad, either.
That's how 24-year-old Joshua Decolongon—the company's "chief wine officer," or formally, the product manager—came on board. He was the president of the wine club at UBC, and at 22, one of the youngest people in Western Canada to receive formal certification as a sommelier. Young, cheery, and optimistic, he fit the bill of Lee and Chua's search for someone who's an expert, but "not very conservative about what wine is." He's now in charge of tinkering with their formulas, which are mostly kept in a fridge in the office.
It's understandable that some of the world's biggest wine experts might feel skeptical (at best) about the notion of a "winery" that fundamentally turns its back on the importance of things like age, grape varietals, region, terroir, rarity—basically, every element of wine as we know it. Ava Winery has received quite a bit of press for its concept alone, and how little it jibes with the wine world's fealty to tradition. Things were rough at first; on the internet, people apparently feel perfectly fine about making literal death threats over something like grapeless wine. "Mardonn was genuinely concerned about our mortal safety," Lee remembers about the first few rounds of press.
"What the wine industry doesn't want people to know is that wine, as a commercial product, is already heavily adulterated," he continues. "It's highly engineered in a lot of ways, very processed and modified. I think a lot of the wine industry is looking at this and being like, That's very interesting. What if we take advantage of methods like this?"
Overall, there's been more curiosity than vitriol directed at the company. Timothy Hanni was one of the first two resident Americans to earn the title of "Master of Wine" and is now a certified wine educator and instructor at Napa Valley Wine Academy. He happens to think that what Ava's doing is "a hoot."
For one thing, it would truly disrupt "all of this over-complication and mysticism and mythology that wine people love to heap on the product," Hanni says.
"You're going to find people who are horrified, like this is the worst thing that could happen, and from their perspective, they have a point," Hanni tells MUNCHIES. "But at the end of the day, if it can be done, then wow, how fantastic, we can actually taste '47 Chateau Cheval Blanc."
But he also predicts that people might be surprised by how these legendary wines actually hold up to their reputations: "With a lot of these wines that people fawn over and pay thousands of dollars for, do they really even taste they good? I can tell you the answer to that: no. Some people love to throw around the names and the vintages and whatever, but really have no clue about what the wines taste like. I think a lot of people would be absolutely surprised, like, Oh my god, the emperor has no clothes."
The concept of scarcity and of the values of these individual wines could collapse. Hanni is also quick to point out that wine counterfeiting, especially overseas, is already a "huge problem." The technology that Ava is working with could exacerbate that problem or could eradicate the black market. Instead of buying illegally produced, overpriced, and mislabeled bottles of fine wines, people could buy affordable molecular "clones" of priceless vintages.
"I don't care about ruffling feathers," Lee tells me pointedly. "If we can make a product exactly like [an expensive wine], with all those exact same molecules, then there's literally no difference. We don't need someone to taste our product and say, 'Oh, OK, I think this tastes fine,' because we know it's identical to the first product."
That's not to say that replicating wines using raw chemical compounds has proven easy. Ava's website describes the chemical cocktail as a mix of amino acids, acids, sugars, volatile organics, and ethanol. "There's a lot of things in there [the human palate] can't detect, because they're in such low concentrations," he says.
It was Decolongon who insisted to Lee and Chua that in wine, sometimes small amounts of these "bad" flavors can be good, in the right quantity and context. A sophisticated red might dry your mouth a bit with its tannins, or have a bitterness like dark chocolate upon first sip, or a finish that tastes like lawn clippings. But to remove those qualities would be to destroy the essence of the wine, even if they sound unappealing on their own.
"That was very surprising for us," Lee admits. "That was, I would say, one of those very early epiphanies where you really have to look at [the process] from a holistic perspective."
Hanni is skeptical that true replication is even possible. "There are so many compounds, some in parts per trillion, that might have a flavor effect on the product," he argues. It's also unclear whether any of wine's many purported health benefits would be maintained if it were reconstructed molecularly. But the first six months of the project were all about establishing proof of concept, anyway. Now, Ava needs to show proof of competence.
"You know when you drink a glass of wine and say, 'Oh, there's these peachy notes' or 'oaky notes' or 'tropical fruit' or whatever?" Lee asks. "A more tropical-smelling wine might have something like ethyl hexanoate in it. I don't expect anyone to know what the hell that is, but it's a compound found in wine that is literally the exact same compound that makes pineapple smell like pineapple."
So with all of this talk of flavor, is Ava's wine any good? It's time to find out.
Ava has been working on a moscato, a Champagne, and a pinot noir—although they won't specify which specific wines they're hoping to emulate. All three are still only a few months into development. The pinot noir is crystal-clear and in a beaker, so it's easy to surmise that that one probably still has a ways to go.
Decolongon sets up a blind taste test for me with five glasses—two "Old World-style sparkling wines that are drier" and three "aperitif/digestif, sweeter dessert wines"—and wants me to share which I think are Ava's and which are "real" wine.
"I love that wine has a story, and different climates sort of affect the wine, and different grape varieties, but at the same time, when it comes down to it, wine is, as with everything, just a complex cocktail of molecules," he tells me as he sets up the tasting. "When we blind taste-test the wines with the sweeter one that we have, I think it's now over 90 percent of people that couldn't tell which was ours."
To cut to the chase: I can tell. With the sparkling wines, the difference is pretty immediate. One tastes like, or rather is, a brut Champagne, while the other, despite its effervescence and booziness and light golden color, has a suspect quality. Something that suggests a bit too much tropical fruit—interesting, considering our earlier conversation about pineapple.
The other three, the dessert wines, are all very sweet in a way that would have delighted me in the days before I learned that overconsumption of alcohol that tastes like candy will bestow you with the most painful hangovers of your life. One of the wines tasted like a familiar, decent moscato; another quite a lot like marzipan; and the third, like a bellini made with peach schnapps instead of purée. I correctly identify Ava's Champagne and moscato replicas, as well as the "real" Champagne and moscato. The third dessert wine, Decolongon tells me, was a decoy, a wine that is commercially available but has added flavorings.
This all begs the question, why bother with all of this instead of just drinking some decent $12 wine made from actual grapes?
Ideally, Lee wants each bottle of Ava's wines to fall at or below $10 a pop. He knows that roughly 90 percent of wine sold in the US is within this price range. The team also hopes that the environmental costliness of wine might be mitigated by this process. When it comes to sourcing the "ingredients," yeast and corn can be engineered to produce certain compounds and amino acids in high concentrations. The team has also calculated that their wine would require 50 to 100 times less water than the grape-made stuff.
"Most people have no concept of this—we didn't even know this when we started—but a liter of wine takes 500 to 1,000 liters [of water] to produce," he tells me. In drought-stricken California, that number is all the more harrowing.
But the ethical concerns are secondary to the scientific and culinary exploration. "We want to get it to the point where the sommelier or the taste tester is actually not an important part of the equation anymore," Lee says. "Because the vision here is the molecular reconstruction of food. If we have methods that can properly quantify and identify these components, then there's no subjectivity that's relevant for it anymore."
Hearing that, it comes as no surprise that Lee is "a huge consumer" of Soylent, the bioengineered, nutritionally complete meal replacement beverage, which he admires for its efficiency and affordability.
"I've had food prepared by three-star Michelin chefs, but I don't want to pay for it," he explains.
"That's also why i don't like the organic food movement, because I'm like, Why would I pay that much more for a product that's fundamentally the same, or whose differences have no practical terms?" he puts it simply. "That's, like, the American way."
Every day this week, MUNCHIES is exploring the future of food on planet Earth, from lab-grown meat and biohacking to GMOs and the precarious state of our oceans. Find out more here.