It is the miracle that we’ve all been waiting for: water really can be turned into wine.
Wine experts from San Francisco claim that they can make synthetic wine in just 15 minutes without using any grapes. Mardonn Chua and Alec Lee produce their vino by combining water and ethanol with flavor compounds to create booze that mimics the taste of really expensive wine. The San Francisco startup called Ava Winery sells, for example, a replica version of 1992 Dom Pérignon champagne for $50, while the real deal would cost $200. Lee explains why we’ll all be raising a glass to synthetic wine.
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How did you come up with the idea to create grape-free wine?
– Mardonn was on a winery tour in Napa Valley when he came across the wine that won the Judgment of Paris competition 40 years ago (1973 Chateau Montelena Chardonnay). There are only a few bottles left today and the last one sold for more than $11,000 which was far outside his reach. He thought: “If wine is nothing more than its chemistry, could we analyze its complete molecular profile and recreate it from scratch?” That's how we started working on the idea of taking the great vintages of wine and recreating them in a way that would be accessible to all.
So, you created it for money saving reasons?
– There are a few reasons why we want to do this: part of it is the ability to enhance the appreciation of great wines in the same way that reprints of great paintings enhance people's appreciation of the original. Another reason is that we see ourselves at the frontier of the food technology revolution where a number of other startups are inventing new methods of producing foods that are cheaper, more reliable, more sustainable, and in many cases more ethical.
We want to show that highly engineered foods can be just as good if not better than the original, and wine is a culturally significant category for us to disrupt.
Why does it take such little time to create synthetic wine?
– We identify the molecules that are present and then source them individually and recombine. A three-year-old Chardonnay just has a different flavor profile than a 20-year-old Chardonnay, so there's nothing inherently more difficult about creating the aged one. It's very quick because when we know all the molecules that are present, we don't need to wait for yeast or anything else to produce them. Once they're mixed, it's finished!
Does it have the same qualities?
– That's our goal. We are still prototyping, but we're getting very close. Our goal is to get it to the point where nobody will be able to tell that our wine was made very differently to a regular wine.
Does it have any advantages over a ‘normal’ wine?
– There are some key advantages that we're finding so far – it retains its quality for much longer than normal wine after being opened. It can also be made without sulfites or histamines which may affect many people. Our replicas also don't cause the same health risks that are an issue for certain wines grown in certain regions (e.g. our wines can be made free of things like arsenic, which is found in the soil of certain wine-growing regions). There are other known carcinogens or toxic compounds found in regular wines that we simply don't need to add. And our wine is also produced far more sustainably, as we use approximately 60 times less water than regular winemaking.
How would you respond to the critics of cheap synthetic wine?
– There are always critics of ideas that are so new. We think the future of food – all food – is entirely synthetic or engineered, even though many people are speaking out against GMOs, artificial flavors and coloring, etc. The transition will be slow, but once people understand the advantages of our processes and are willing to accept them, we think many other companies will start to become more transparent about their production methods and eventually all foods will be produced by similar means. It probably won't happen in our lifetimes but these things take time.
Do you think that your replicas could replace original wines?
– 200 years ago, lumberjacks used very different tools to accomplish what today's lumberjacks accomplish. But people still own axes, saws, etc. The niche those tools fit simply change over time. Today, winemaking is an art but it's also the only way to produce wine at factory scale for the masses. In the future I think winemaking will change its niche.
– We want to prove the concept in a number of different varietals of wine. We need to show that people are willing to accept this product as being equal or superior to their counterparts. But eventually we'd like to see the approach applied to other foods as well. For now, we're focusing exclusively on the wine.
— By Dmitry Belyaev