Thanks to poor yields due to extreme weather, global wine production recently fell to the lowest levels in 56 years. While it becomes increasingly clear that climate change will cause major changes in food production, this year’s wine harvests have been a reminder that the world’s most famous wine regions could also continue to be adversely affected, potentially rendering them unable to produce the cherished wines for which they are known.
As engineered meat alternatives have begun to make their way into grocery stores and restaurants, wine made using similar techniques may not be far behind. The San Francisco–based company Ava Winery is attempting to make synthetic wines—no grapes involved—that could be more environmentally friendly and environmentally stable while also offering a luxury good at a lower cost, though representatives weren’t quite ready to talk target prices. Ava attempts to replicate existing high-quality wines, a process that starts with a base of water and ethanol and then adds acids, amino acids, sugars, and organic compounds.
As an enthusiast, I prefer my wines grown in a vineyard and aged in dark, underground cask rooms. The idea of a wine generated in a lab seems a bit … unromantic, for starters. Nonetheless, the potential is intriguing. If Ava succeeds, it wouldn’t just (just!) allow high-priced wines to be made more cheaply. It could also re-create aged wines, including those of famed vintages. “The technology is like a copier. It can copy a new photograph or an old one. It doesn’t matter. The process is the same,” says co-founder Alec Lee. The idea of being able to drink affordable copies of Bordeaux first growths was enough to whet my appetite.
The possibility of synthetic wine comes at a time when the industry is actually moving away from the use of technological manipulation, in part a reaction to the fruit-driven “international style” that arose in the ’90s. The international style refers to the fact that thanks to scientific research, it became possible for most wine regions to produce rich, easy-drinking, similar-tasting wines. Critics of the style feel that it sacrifices terroir, the unique character a wine derives from the sum of its climate, soil, and other localized factors. Natural wine represents the further reaches of this turn toward preserving terroir by strict minimization of technological and chemical interventions both in the vineyard and the winery. Among other things, natural winemakers use whatever yeast is present in the vineyard’s air, reduce or eliminate the use of sulfites and other additives, and generally seek to be as hands off as possible during the entire production process.
However, Lee is optimistic that the wines Ava is creating will have their place and even that debates about winemaking could eventually become academic. He pointed out that the vast majority of vanilla used is synthetic, for instance.
But I had to sip this for myself. Recently, I tasted the latest iteration of what will possibly be one of Ava’s first products, a moscato. (Ava aimed for a chardonnay at first, but initial experiments led them in the direction of moscato, a sweet, sparkling white wine.) Joining me were Bill Jensen, beverage director of the Washington restaurant Tail Up Goat, and a wine neophyte colleague of mine, Brandon Tensley. (Tensley and I work at New America; New America is a partner with Slate and Arizona State University in Future Tense.) At a corner table of the restaurant, I uncorked the Ava wine and poured each of us a glass. Its strong, fruity aroma was a reasonable approximation of moscato’s aromatic intensity, Jensen said it was “like fruit candy—it has a manufactured quality, though not off-putting, necessarily.”
After taking a sip, we all agreed that what was in the glass was balanced and fairly appealing. “They’ve passed the first hurdle. They produced something that tastes like wine,” said Jensen. For comparison, I opened a 2015 Saracco Moscato d’Asti that I’d bought for $18, and while we all felt that the Saracco had more complexity, the two wines weren’t all that far apart. Tensley said he could easily see himself buying a bottle of Ava’s moscato to drink on a Friday night with friends.
I decided to also enlist a wine-knowledgeable server at Tail Up Goat to taste the two moscatos blind. She had no problem picking out the Ava. “It has an artificial taste of sorts,” she said. But then she pointed to the Diet Coke she’d just put down and said, “I don’t necessarily have a problem with that.”
As we all continued tasting the two moscatos and discussing whether a synthetic wine could sell, Jensen made a key point: “Most consumers are unaware of just how much the wines they buy are doctored.” Winemakers can add a host of enzymes, sugars, acidifiers, and other chemicals to achieve desired effects. They can order special strains of yeast to achieve certain taste profiles, and techniques such as micro-oxygenation and reverse osmosis further change the flavor and feel of wines. As wine writer Alice Feiring has said, “A winemaker can easily make Muscadet taste like Chardonnay,” two wines that are usually very far apart in taste.
From this perspective, the manipulated wines that many of us buy at grocery stores begin to seem not that distant from lab-made wine. “In fact, the Ava wine reminds me of a mass-produced wine,” said Jensen. While Ava may have pulled off a moscato, other wines will be tougher: “Moscato was a big target to aim at the first time out, with the sweetness, the carbonation, and the high aromatics.” He’s somewhat skeptical of how far this can reasonably go, though. “I don’t want to say that wine is irreducibly complex … but I kind of do,” he said.
Ava is just getting started, though. Currently in the works is a copy of a 2014 California cabernet that retails for about $100 a bottle. Lee says the company also has historical wine projects in the pipeline. It will be a challenge: A wine can contain hundreds of compounds, and their interactions with one another to produce a wine of distinction have long eluded easy scientific understanding. But I’m going to hold out hope that it could, one day, give me a chance to drink a close approximation of an expensive bottle I’d otherwise never have a chance to experience, say, a 1982 Petrus (which, in good condition, would cost about $4,000). That would be an experience worth having, even for a committed wine Luddite. I can always open a bottle of that hand-harvested wine from a small vineyard in Sicily the following night.