Fake It, and Then You Make It


Terroir du Massif d'Uchaux

One of my favourite winemakers once said that wine is a product of serendipity: the wine grower and the winemaker arranged for the best possible situation to take advantage of the best that the land, the soil, the climate, the weather and the sun had to give, and then hoped that it would all come together. When the arrangements they made were good (right location, geotechnical situation, slope, grape choices, pruning, water management, etc) they got more good vintages than poor.

Happy Armenian Winegrower

But that’s the point: sometimes a vintage is going to be judged as lesser than another. It’s almost always no fault of the winemaker. After all, unless they go nuts (it’s not a long trip for many of the winemakers I know) they will bring the best of their skills to bear every time. This is all part of winemaking: you take what you are given, do the best with it you can, and as the man once said, if you don’t screw it up too bad you can often make good wine. But it’s nature that decides, not a man in a winery.

That’s why I was wary when I heard about Replica Wine. The company purports to have made a lineup of wines that replicate popular California premium wines, at a steeply discounted price, under cheeky names like ‘Knockoff’, ‘Label Envy’ and ‘Pickpocket’, which are said to be clones of Kendall Jackson Chardonnay, La Crema Pinot Noir, and The Prisoner Red Blend respectively.

Truth (as such) in advertising

Their claim is based on they idea that through laboratory analysis they can construct a wine blend that can replicate the flavour and aroma of famous wines. To do this, they use a company that “analyzed nearly 2,000 wines and over 60 chemistry markers”. Then they use technical winemaking to achiever “at least 90 percent chemical similarity in flavor profiles”.

There are three distinct problems with this, and each one of them make this product very problematic. First, they say it’s 90% of the way the wine they claim to be imitating, but they’re charging half the price, stating that you don’t have to overpay “for a fancy label or a name”. Labels and names don’t really enter into the sub-$20 USD/bottle market. They sell based on distribution and volume, not exclusivity. The idea that Kendall-Jackson Chardonnay, the fastest selling Chardonnay brand in the USA is somehow higher-priced because it’s ‘exclusive’ is ludicrous. The cost structure for both wines is the same, and cost savings being realized by using cheaper ingredients are for the most part being eaten up by the immense ongoing costs of analyzing the wine at each step of the process. The numbers do not add up.

I share 90% of my DNA with a banana? I can't believe my ears! 

Second, diesel fuel is 90% identical to gasoline, and in some places it’s half the price. Go ahead and put diesel into your Prius and see what happens. Other things that make 90% include chimpanzees and humans, Scotch whisky and Sterno, tofu and plastic. By their own claim, you’re taking a whopping cut on content and being asked to believe it’s just as good.

Third, and most importantly, there aren’t 60 chemical markers that give wine it’s delightful character (or even the 560 stretch goal they claim to be working on). There are over 40,000 kinds of polyphenolic (tannin) compounds alone in wine. Sure they can hit the broad markers easy enough: pH, colour, acid, alcohol content, etc, but any reasonably intelligent 8-year old could do that with an hour’s instruction (and good supervision: lab work should always be safe).

But the micro-scale components that give wine flavour, body, aroma, mouthfeel, et cetera are in the tens or hundreds of thousands, and they’re delivered by the serendipity of the vineyard and season, not in some chemical winemaking laboratory.

Hey, that's just my aftershave collection

The problem comes into focus when you consider the relative variables that need to be analyzed to really study the issue. With 40,000 individual polyphenolic compounds in red wine you have to start juggling the way you can arrange all these compounds by using a factorial expression to keep track of the number of possible combinations. That's 1x2x3x4x5 . . . x40,000. At factorial five you’re up to 120 different combos, at factorial 10 (written as 10!) it’s 3,628,800 possible combinations. Factorial 40,000 is improbable—if you go looking for a factorial calculator on the internet, they tend to break down after 170! (7.25741561530799E+306, which works out to a little over a 7 followed by 306 zeros).

It really doesn’t matter how smart their laboratory is, because once you get through the polyphenolics, you’re up against all of the other tens of thousands of colour, flavour and aroma compounds and you’ll be up to factorial 100,000 in no time. Even with a quantum computer and the Starship Enterprise to power it, the universe would burn out before you finished calculating out the possible combinations.

Which brings us to wine kits. I’ve been asked many times (it’s in the middle hundreds by now) how wine kits are made—in a laboratory? Kit wines rely on the same vineyard choices, terroir and serendipity for their quality that wineries do--you just can't make wine in a laboratory.

It's a WINE!

Believe me, I had enough dunder-headed executives insist that it could be done to see where it leads: sad, weird kits nobody buys twice, and so much R&D money that could have been used to buy better grapes and do more research on how to get the most out of them. 

There’s one final thought on this from my friend Daniel Pambianchi. In discussions on this topic he brought up where the attempt to ride on the coat tails of a proprietary label could lead:

 “I don't agree this and should not be allowed. You know what will happen next ... wineries will race to copyright or patent their wines. It then all becomes a mess.”

I agree. When I helped bring Master Vintner Wines out I didn't want to replicate any commercial wine, nor did I want them to taste like anyone else's wine at all. I wanted them to taste like the sunlight, the soil and the care that the grapes got in the vineyard, so that they could all be expressed by you, the winemaker, to have as your very own. 

Tastes like Serendipity

After all, when you follow in someone's footsteps, all you really see is backside. I want my wines to be out front. 

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