Test Tube Wines are Upon Us

© Joe Vaughn / Getty Images

By Carson Demmond Posted July 22, 2016

A controversial project may soon have us sampling carbon copies of the world’s greatest wines, made not in the vineyard but in a San Francisco lab. 

"Wine engineered, with no grapes or fermentation. Mature, earthy notes with delicate bubbles. Savory flavor shows through the citrus and stone fruit."

So reads the description of the impending inaugural release from Ava Winery – a product claiming to replicate the 1992 Dom Pérignon Champagne using Ava’s proprietary technology. Beyond the contrived and tacky tasting note, there’s another disconcerting element in their message: no grapes, no fermentation.

The two scientists behind Ava Winery (it’s actually more of a laboratory), Alec Lee and Mardonn Chua, first conceived the concept when Chua saw a 1973 Chateau Montelena Chardonnay sell for five figures. The objective was innocent enough. What if they could bioengineer a liquid that tasted and smelled just like the wine in that bottle, for a fraction of the price? Why should only a few wealthy collectors be able to sample the world’s finest wines? 

To replicate a wine, they identify upwards of 200 molecular compounds and the ratios in which those compounds co-exist. Then, they begin the cloning process. While they acknowledge that to many wine lovers, a wine’s history, terroir, evolution, and the labor involved in both farming and vinification are tantamount to its value, the simplicity of their product and its modest price tag are enough to satisfy a growing demand in the market. True, their product contains the same amino acids, sugars, volatile aroma compounds, and alcohol found in your favorite Cabernet, but can you call it wine?

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