A $120 bottle of finest pinot noir and a $30 'fake'. Could two Michelin-star chefs and top sommeliers taste the difference? The makers of 'molecular' wines and spirits say they can reproduce almost any high-priced bottle on the market, and then sell it for a fraction of the cost. Rhys Blakely reports. Plus the wine critic's taste test.
Michel Roux Jr is not in agreement with the two sommeliers at the table. They're all perching on a humongous leather sofa in a photo studio in northwest London. Each has before them two glasses. One – they don't know which – contains a splash of 2017 Far Niente, a highly regarded chardonnay from California's Napa Valley that retails for £85 (NZ$170) a bottle.
The other glass contains what you might call a homage or, less charitably, a knock-off – a pirate wine created by a team of renegade vintners who have analysed the molecular composition of the Far Niente and used their laboratory breakdown to create what they hope is a high-quality, low-cost copy.
The facsimile wine, called Retrofit, sells for £15 (NZ$30) or $15 in the States, but is not available in Europe. Its makers argue that consumers pay too much for decent plonk, that a handful of producers effectively have a stranglehold on the market and that the veil needs to be lifted on how the wine industry really operates.
Our blind tasting soon suggests that they have a point. Roux, who runs the two-star Le Gavroche in Mayfair, thinks that glass No 2 contains the Far Niente – but he'd rather drink a glass of No 1.
Alexandra Badoi, sommelier at Meraki, an upmarket Greek restaurant in Fitzrovia, disagrees. No 1 is the better wine, she says, with more body and biscuityness – so surely it's the original?
Monica Galetti, the MasterChef judge, and her sommelier husband, David, run the high-end restaurant Mere in Bloomsbury.
With its creaminess and its pineapple and its superior complexity, structure and density, No 1 is the original, says David.
"They're very close," Monica murmurs as she sips each in turn and then chooses No 2.
She's not sure that she approves of the ethics of the people who make Retrofit. Exploiting somebody else's hard work is bad form, she says. "But I think they're going to have a great time confusing the public."
They certainly foxed our sommeliers: both thought the copy was the real Far Niente.
Four thousand miles away, in Denver, Colorado, I imagine Ari Walker chuckling to himself. Walker is the man behind Replica Wines, the outfit that produces Retrofit and a stable of other copycats. He'll insist that he gains no satisfaction out of embarrassing professional wine tasters, something that he achieves on a fairly frequent basis. "But we do deliver the flavours that consumers already love, at a fraction of the price."
His company is part of a nascent trend in what you might call "molecular" wine and spirits manufacturing. It's based on the notion that a convincing replica of any beverage can be concocted from scratch.
The San Francisco company Endless West makes a "molecular whiskey" called Glyph. It's a blend of alcohol and additives, synthesised entirely in a lab and designed to taste (in order to appeal to a wide market) like inoffensive, middle-of-the-road whiskey.
The idea came after one of the company's founders, Mardonn Chua, took a tour of Napa Valley wineries and saw a bottle of 1973 Chateau Montelena chardonnay on display.
In 1976 this had been the vintage that had won the famous "Judgment of Paris" blind tasting – a shootout between US and French wines that put the Americans, for the first time, at the top of the world rankings.
There are only a few bottles left and they fetch astronomical prices. It was a shame, Chua thought as he gazed at one of them locked away in a plexiglass case, that nobody would get to taste it.
On the bus ride home, he decided that perhaps they could. He could make any wine, he reasoned, down to the last molecule, without grapes. Alec Lee, Endless West's CEO, sketches out the rationale for me. "If you take away the history and the marketing and all that, it's a collection of molecules, mostly water and alcohols and sugars and acids," he says.
"I have a lab. If I can figure out what each of these molecules is, I should be able to quantify them," he continues. "If I can source each one of them independently, I should be able to mix them back together again, like the pixels of a photograph."
The process, he argues, has the potential to be more efficient, by orders of magnitude, than traditional distilling and winemaking. Years of cellaring could be sidestepped. Carbon dioxide emissions and the use of land, water and pesticides might be slashed.
Ari Walker is less of a molecular fundamentalist. He doesn't argue that a wine can be duplicated with perfect accuracy. Instead, he is in the business of "improving" cheap base wine in the science lab. "We're not trying to hit a bullet with a bullet," he says. But he's betting that if he can get 90 per cent of the way to a famous label and sell the result for, say, 30 per cent of the price, then customers will snap it up.
Walker stumbled into the wine industry. He took a job at a wholesaler when he left college at 22 (he's now 46), because his wife was pregnant and he needed an income. He soon became beguiled; wine-and-food pairings started to infiltrate his dreams.
In 2001 he started his own import and distribution business with Kevin Hicks, an internet entrepreneur. Their first attempt to create their own affordable wines fell flat – too many competitors. It wasn't until 2012 that Walker had his epiphany, via baby food.
Hicks, who was on the cusp of fatherhood, had begun to ask what, precisely, was in the organic purees that he and his wife were planning to feed their newborn. He sent samples to a laboratory to be analysed. The bills quickly mounted – $1,500 per analysis – so he decided to build his own lab.
He ploughed millions into equipment for the venture, which he called Ellipse Analytics. It was soon providing breakdowns of products – everything from sunscreens to bodybuilder diet supplements – for industrial clients. Walker quickly spotted the potential for wine.
Today, it's likely that Walker possesses the largest library of molecular reports on individual vintages. The scientists at Ellipse have broken down the composition of thousands from around the world.
The people who trade in fine vintages often land on descriptions that are calculated to amplify their mystique. Michael Broadbent, the distinguished former head of Christie's wine department, was a master. The author Benjamin Wallace described his way with words in the book The Billionaire's Vinegar. A 1979 Pétrus once reminded Broadbent of Sophia Loren: "You can admire them, but you don't want to go to bed with them." A double magnum of 1947 Cantenac-Brown evoked chocolate and "schoolgirls' uniforms".
Walker has less time for poetry. Instead, he can tell you precisely which acids and sugars are responsible for producing the taste, aroma and "mouthfeel" of your favourite pinot. He knows which esters make your sauvignon blanc smell like grapefruit and gooseberry, which sulphites have been used to inhibit the growth of rogue wild yeasts. He can say which tannins are reacting with the proteins in your saliva to produce the tactile astringency of your go-to house red.
He also sees which additives have been used to bolster mainstream favourites – the brands, for instance, that go heavy on "Mega Purple", a concentrated grape-juice gloop used to deepen colour.
In 2015, Walker and Hicks started Replica. They would use their data to reverse-engineer some of America's most celebrated wines. They also pledged to cut out pesticide residues and other unwelcome elements. They would not resort to using Mega Purple. Before long, it became apparent that professional tasters often could not distinguish their copies from the real thing.
Last year, Walker let Wired magazine view the process behind an effort to clone a 2015 Far Niente. It began with a taster going through more than 70 lots of chardonnay – cheap vats of surplus wine, essentially – that were being offered by a broker based in the Napa Valley. Two were chosen as potential fits.
One was from a tiny boutique vintner, the other from a massive producer that makes millions of bottles of wine each year. The first was an excellent match for the Far Niente, but only a little was available; the second was less suitable, but there was more of it.
Walker's team were guided by an analysis of the aromatic compounds present in the most popular California chardonnays. Far Niente, it emerged, was something of an outlier: it had more citrus and no coconut.
It also had a far higher level of malic acid, found in lime juice. This was not a surprise: it had not undergone the secondary fermentation that transforms malic acid into lactic acid – a process by which the taste of green apple is transformed into something more creamy or buttery, and which Walker's team felt had lent a "flinty" note to the Far Niente.
Walker was unconcerned about the malic acid – he could add the chemical into his blend. Replicating the cloves and raw wood notes present in the Far Niente would be trickier. They were a product of the precise type of oak barrel in which the wine had been fermented. His team would have to try to mimic them by adding a wood extract.
Unsurprisingly, not everybody has warmed to the Replica sales pitch. The Santa Rosa Press-Democrat, a newspaper in Sonoma County, California, regarded as speaking for the state's wine industry, has denounced the company's offerings as "Frankenstein wines".
"While Replica wine doesn't begin in a petri dish," it said, "it is created, to a large degree, in a lab."
During our tasting, Michel Roux Jr also has misgivings. He wouldn't buy a knock-off Rolex from a Hong Kong street market, he says, so why would he buy a facsimile wine? "Why not just produce a decent wine, a good wine, and sell it for what it is? Rather than try to emulate or copy something else and knock it out cheaper. What's the point?"
Walker, for his part, seems an amiable type. There's more amusement in his voice than frustration when he contemplates the pushback he's experienced. Opinion is divided in the wider wine community, he says, in a way that reminds him of how rosé was regarded 20 years ago. Back then, there were two types of rosé drinkers: knowledgeable connoisseurs and people who just liked sugary plonk.
"And so, when you went to someone who fancied themselves as a wine aficionado – and not to show my bias too much, but nearly always it was a young man who maybe felt as if he had something to prove – he would turn up his nose. He was like, 'Only losers who don't know about wine drink rosé.' But he was really only showing his own ignorance – I refer to him as the wine Wahhabist."
True wine lovers, he says, will appreciate the Replica mission. "They're hugely enthusiastic about the project, because we're stripping out so much pretence and unnecessary cost."
There's also the question of how disruptive his methods really are. Walker says that – with the exception of the quality of the molecular analysis of the target wines – he doesn't use any techniques that haven't been commonplace for decades. "There is no voodoo with what we are creating – just a top-notch team of professionals making great wines at reasonable prices," promises Brett Zimmerman, Replica's master sommelier, whose tastebuds have a final say on what goes into the bottle.
Indeed, Popular Science magazine may have hit the nail on the head when it looked at Replica and decided that the "master forgery" angle was "a cool trick, but it's also a bit of misdirection".
Most wine is mass-produced – from your £5 (NZ$10) bottle of Isla Negra to a £350 (NZ$690) magnum of Dom Pérignon. (An estimated 96 per cent of the wine sold in the UK retails for less than £9 (NZ$18) per bottle.) Made in bulk, they contain grapes sourced from a range of vineyards.
The art of large-scale winemaking, then, is to coax the fruit to produce a drinkable wine and to even out lacklustre vintages.
This may involve judicious blending and using a wide range of approved additives. This is what Replica does. In New Zealand, Oregon and parts of France, for example, it's permissible to add cane or beet sugar to under-ripe grapes to increase the alcohol content. Elsewhere, gum arabic is used to tame unruly tannins. Powdered tannins, derived from oak trees, have an opposite effect. A dash of tartaric acid can impart a pleasing tartness to a flaccid white.
Moreover, winemakers have long set out to duplicate the flavours of the top-selling or the best-reviewed brands – they'd be idiots not to in a competitive $250 billion market. There is an established network of laboratories that, in addition to ensuring wines are stable and clean, also help producers to shape them to mesh with consumer tastes. What's unique about the people behind Replica, it seems, is that they openly admit to such techniques.
But there are limits, says Walker. Some brands, he believes, are all but impossible to mimic convincingly. He reckons, for instance, that he could make a really good wine in the more austere style of the commune of Saint-Estèphe in the Bordeaux region of France, provided he were able to access suitable fruit to start with. But he says his methods would struggle to reproduce a very fine individual bordeaux, the character of which intimately reflects the location of the vineyard. "I am enough of a traditionalist to believe that there are certain terroirs or microclimates that really do come through, and which are very challenging to replicate," he says.
"There are certain superior cru vineyards that we've looked at through the course of several vintages and you see a certain quantitative fingerprint," he says. "It's clear to us that terroir is playing a role. But I would also say that we're talking about a vanishingly small percentage of the wines that British consumers actually drink."
Our blind tests also suggest that Replica's whites might be more successful than its reds. Roux Jr and his fellow tasters had little problem picking out the facsimile wines when we pitted a 2016 Flowers pinot noir (£59.99/NZ$119) against Replica's effort to copy it, which it has named Label Envy.
Similarly, they easily identified the original when California's revered the Prisoner (£67/NZ$133) went up against Replica's version, which is called Pickpocket.
"They've done a good job with the whites we've tasted," says Roux. "With the reds, I think they're way off. However, who knows? With a bit of work, maybe they'll get there."
What will the future hold for the molecular movement? Alec Lee, of Endless West, likens it to the invention of electronic music: traditionalists initially dismissed its merits while the masses embraced it. Today, you can adore both electronica and Bach.
Technology made music of all genres more accessible, he adds. Little more than a century ago, if you wanted to hear the world's finest soprano you had to travel to see her in person. Today, you click on YouTube. He doesn't rule out a future where reproductions make legendary, currently unobtainable wines and spirits similarly obtainable.
But there is also, he concedes, the issue of human nature and the question of where the value of wine really lies. "There are and there will perhaps always be those who argue that a wine or spirit is more than the sum of its molecular parts – that there is something imbued that is 'other'," says Lee. "We are scientists. For us, there is no supernatural imbuing, only the molecules – and the psychological perception of the product."
That last little phrase, of course, opens a vast new discussion. If terroir leaves an indelible impression on certain wines, so do the stories that surround them. The finest and rarest wines stopped being mere beverages aeons ago, to become trophies, investments and objects of fetish.
Since antiquity, the vagaries of the weather have made certain vintages special (121BC was said to be a famously good year for Falernian, a Roman tipple). Rogue winemakers have been trying to spoof the ageing process – the creation of compounds known as polymeric phenols, the mellowing of the alcohol, the softening of astringent tannins – for at least 20 centuries. And it's long been known that price affects pleasure.
A decade ago, a group of "neuroeconomists" from Stanford University and the California Institute of Technology gave a group of subjects several glasses of the same wine. After the subjects were told that the glasses cost different amounts, they consistently rated the "more expensive" ones more favourably. Brain scans even suggested that they were deriving more pleasure from the glasses they believed were dearer. Now, if you could bottle that, you'd really be on to something.
You can't fool me. Or can you?
Our wine expert, Jane MacQuitty, takes up the challenge
CHARDONNAY Verdict: Fooled
Real 2017 Far Niente, Napa Valley, California (£84.75/NZ$168; strictlywine.co.uk)
Quite simple, with an oaky top note and a dab of vanilla, but rather one-dimensional tasting with a short finish. It needs more complex fruit flavours, body and length to excel.
Fake 2016 Replica Retrofit (£15/NZ$30)
A more interesting bouquet with grapey, melon and clove-scented oak to the fore. Quite high in alcohol, but balanced by good levels of fruit and acidity.
PINOT NOIR Verdict: Not fooled
Real 2016 Flowers, Sonoma Coast, California (£59.99/NZ$119; handford.net)
Savoury, gamey, pinot noir nose and complex, classy peacock's tail of pinot noir flavours on the palate, with a fine, long, smoky-oaky finish. For a new world pinot noir, the restrained alcohol here and "cool" mouthfeel indicate that it has come from a cool spot like the Sonoma coast.
Fake 2016 Replica Label Envy (£15/NZ$30)
Pale red hue with a touch of garnet indicating some age. Big, fat, walk-in-the-woods pinot noir scents on the nose, but on the palate it turns into a bold, confected, one-dimensional, creosote-laced mouthful, with a sweet, clunky finish.
RED BLEND Verdict: Not fooled
Real 2016 The Prisoner, California (£63.86/NZ$127); 8wines.com)
Lots of cloves and oak on the nose, plus an off-putting green herbaceous note. Very sweet, creamy, oaky, liquorice and blackberry liqueur-led zinfandel-dominant palate. Let down on the finish by excessive sugar and oak, just like the other red blend.
Fake 2016 Replica Pickpocket (£15/NZ$30)
Big, sweet mulberry scent, similar to a zinfandel-dominant red, but with an off-putting, dusty oak undertow. Very sweet: just like drinking liquid, alcoholic black cherry jam, complete with a sticky finish. One for the cola and candy-loving American wine drinkers, not European.
Fancy a wee dram (from a lab)?
Alec Lee, the CEO of Endless West, has a track record of making large promises. In 2016 his San Francisco-based company, then called Ava Winery, announced that it would soon be releasing 499 bottles of synthetic "wine". It would be produced without using grapes and without fermentation. And it would taste just like 1992 Dom Pérignon champagne, which sells for about £200 (NZ$396) a bottle.
The fizz never materialised, but Lee has succeeded in creating a bourbon-style whiskey, billed as the first to be "made from the molecule up". He claims to have recreated the building blocks of a traditional whiskey – the thousands of compounds that develop during distillation and barrel ageing to give flavour, aroma and mouthfeel – from plant and yeast molecules and by adding these to ethanol he can create whiskey overnight, doing away with expensive barrel ageing. It could be the biggest disruptor in whiskey-making since the invention of the copper still.
So how successful has he been? I took a bottle of Gylph Spirit Whiskey (43 per cent abv; $40 from blackwellswines.com) to Whiskey Ginger bar in Borough, London, where Luca Tosi stocks nearly 70 whiskies. His verdict? "It's very good. Nice and smooth on the nose, with lots of vanilla and toffee sweetness and just a hint of spice. Then, on the palate, you get more unexpected spices such as aniseed, plus some sharp notes not normally found in bourbon. It's almost like a halfway house between bourbon and Scotch.
"I'd definitely stock it. It would be perfect in cocktails and what a story to be able to tell your customers – a whiskey that's never seen the inside of a distillery."
I'm not so convinced. It smells to me rather confected and one-dimensional, like whiskey-flavoured vodka. In short, it lacks personality. Maybe that is deliberate, though. Lee says Glyph's creation was led by market research. Not wanting to put whiskey newbies off, his technicians aimed for inoffensive, middle-of-the-road drinkability.
Perhaps whiskey fan Philip Colligan would be more convinced. He runs the Raspberry Pi Foundation, a charity that puts computers in the hands of kids and adults and teaches them how to code. If anybody were going to be sympathetic to a high-tech whisky facsimile, I reckoned he would. His verdict? "All the right elements are there, but not necessarily in the right order."
- Tony Turnbull, food and drink editor