Wine’s Very Own Imitation Game

by Dwight Furrow

I often hear it said that, despite all the stories about family and cultural traditions, winemaking ideologies, and paeans to terroir, what matters is what’s in the glass. If a wine has flavor it’s good. Nothing else matters. And, of course, the whole idea of wine scores reflects the idea that there is single scale of deliciousness that defines wine quality.

For many people who drink wine as a commodity beverage, I suppose the platitude “it’s only what’s in the glass matters” is true. But many of the people who talk this way are wine lovers and connoisseurs. For many of them, there is something self-deceptive about this full focus on what is in the glass. Although flavor surely matters, it is not all that matters, and these stories, traditions, and ideologies are central to genuine wine appreciation.

Burnham and Skilleås, in their book The Aesthetics of Wine, engage in a thought experiment that shows the questionable nature of “it’s only what’s in the glass that matters”. They ask us to imagine a scenario in 2030 in which wine science has advanced to such a point that any wine can be thoroughly analyzed, not only into its constituent chemical components (which we can already do up to a point), but with regard to a wine’s full development as well.

Imagine 3D animations of a wine’s development over time tracing in precise detail all the chemical reactions a wine undergoes from fermentation through aging to popping the cork that can generate a recipe for all those stages. In this imagined scenario, wine factories can synthetically produce an exact duplicate of any wine you want, at any stage in its development, and can be sold at a modest price. That 2005 Lafite-Rothschild that sells for thousands of dollars per bottle? You can order it as it tasted in 2025 for about $30. The special bottle of La Tâche purchased at your daughter’s birth and opened for her graduation—no problem, just order another. The vagaries of farming, vintage variation, wine faults, and supply limitations are now all a part of the misty, dimly remembered past.

And let’s imagine these synthetic wines have been put through rigorous taste tests and it is demonstrated conclusively that there is no discernable difference between the synthetic wines and the originals.

Is that a wine world you want to live in?

Some people would say sure. If what matters is only what is in the glass, then nothing would be lost in the 2030 scenario and much would be gained. There are benefits to a world in which people with modest incomes can drink great wine. But I suspect many of us would demur. I know I would. We know that people value originals. Art works discovered to be forgeries lose their value. Knock-offs in fashion, music, and luxury goods are commonplace but are not respected as the authentic article.

Part of what we enjoy about wine is its connection to a place, the unique conditions of its production, and the creativity, initiative, and risk-taking of the people who made it. The struggle with nature is also part of wine’s allure. The anxiety over weather, the sheer persistence and observational skill required to farm healthy grapes, the fact that one pile of rocks is so much better than another pile of rocks for growing grapes, the surprise when a fermentation starts to go south, the peculiar individuality of each barrel—these facts about the unpredictability of a less-than-tamed nature , in part, what makes wine compelling independently of the taste of the wine. With the emergence of ecological awareness, biodynamic farming, natural wine, and the cultural ethos of low intervention wine production, which has spread to even very conventional winemakers, we’re beginning to see a wine community witnessing the gradual disappearance of nature in the modern world and pushing back. Wine then becomes a form of resistance, a place where nature can still claim to be “wild” and unruly and where human desires don’t always win. (Climate change is another source of nature’s resistance but that is a whole other story.) If knock-off wines were to succeed in transforming the industry, this resistance to technology über alles would collapse.

There is also the pathos of wine to consider—the sense of regret knowing that for great bottles you will never experience them again. The maturing and decline of a bottle and the fact that all the bottles of a cuvée will eventually disappear symbolizes much about the human condition. These symbolic connections are all severed in the 2030 scenario. Would these losses be worth the opportunity to drink a 2005 Lafite-Rothschild whenever we want? Would we even appreciate such a wine when perfection becomes the norm?

If these considerations carry any weight for you, then your appreciation of wine goes far beyond “what’s in the glass”. Of course, one might grant the cost but argue that the opportunity to taste an affordable, available 2005 Lafite-Rothchild in perpetuity might be worth it. For me it would be a net loss because wine is more than a beverage but a way of life. But YMMV.

Over the past few years, the wine world has been experimenting with its very own version of the Imitation Game. A winery appropriately named Replica began making bold claims about their ability to reverse engineer copies of famous, expensive wines at a fraction of the cost. Wine technology firms have long had the ability to use chromatography and mass spectrometry to analyze the chemical constituents in a wine and make recommendations to wineries about how to adjust wine chemistry to make a better product. Replica takes that one step further. They analyze the popular wine they want to replicate. They then use wine purchased on the bulk wine market to make their source wines, analyze the product, and employ talented wine tasters to recommend adjustments until they create a product that tastes like the wine they want to replicate. Launched in 2015, they now offer six wines which they claim offer “classic California flavor profiles”. However, their website does not indicate which classic wines are replicated. You have to read through articles in the wine press from several years ago to discover their target wines. And as far as I can tell, only two current offerings are replicas of specific wines—Retrofit Chardonnay is a Rombauer knock-off, Label Envy Pinot Noir a copy of La Crema—both high production commercial wines that Replica is able to sell for approximately a 30% discount. The rest of their line up appears to be replicas of generic wines, which is hardly an accomplishment. (I reviewed Retrofit here. It captures the flavor profile of Rombauer but at a lower quality level, which is what you expect from a knock off.)

At least Replica is making wine from grapes. Endless West, formerly AVA Winery, takes the imitation game one step further. They recreate wine from scratch using constituent chemical compounds—no grapes or fermentation needed. When the company first launched in 2015,  they boldly claimed to be working on duplicating a 1992 Dom Pérignon Champagne, listing the levels of amino acids, sugars, acids, volatile organics and alcohol contained in that vintage in their funding applications. Today, they are focused on whiskey and sake, offering only one wine for sale—a $15 Moscato. The Dom Pérignon project is apparently on the back burner, which speaks volumes about their product.

We are very far away from the 2030 project. If you’re craving a 2005 Lafite-Rothschild you will have to acquire it the old fashioned way—sell your house.

Despite the limitations of these real-world experiments, the conceptual questions are still worth thinking about. The idea of reverse engineering a wine assumes that wine is nothing but a solution of chemicals. If you analyze the chemical constituents and reproduce them in precisely the right proportions you have duplicated the wine, according to this view. But this concept of wine is not obviously true. We know that wines with identical grams per liter of sugar, total acidity, and PH can taste quite differently. We don’t yet know the reasons for this. Furthermore, as any winemaker will point out, it matters crucially to the winemaking process when you do something to the wine and in what order. Wine is constantly developing in the tank, in the barrel, and in the bottle, a complex process of chemical bonds forming, breaking, and re-forming transforming the molecular structure in the process. The finished product at the point you pop the cork is the result of that process. Is there any reason to think the totality of chemical constituents will taste the same if they were added via a different process, on a different timeline and in a different order? Will the wine age gracefully? I doubt we know the answer to these questions but if the answer is “no”, making a replica wine would require meticulously tracking the chemical bonding of the target wine as it changes throughout fermentation, settling, and aging creating a comprehensive chemical “image” of the wine at each stage. You might as well just make the wine the old-fashioned way. Thus, I’m skeptical that these wines will be anything more than a poor image of the original.

Even if we suppose this technology is feasible, as I argued above, many wine drinkers care about more than how the wine tastes. We know that in the art and fashion world people prefer originals to copies. The price of a Van Gogh would tumble if it were discovered to be a forgery regardless of how much its style matched that of the master. This is because we value the achievement as much as the object and there is greater achievement in creating something than in imitating it.

However, there is another big question lurking here that might change the perceived costs and benefits of this scenario. Burnham and Skilleas argue that, if this kind of technology were fully implemented, the development of wine would be frozen in time. I’m not sure that is true. Why couldn’t this technology be used to create wine variations as compelling as the variations we find from the vineyards throughout the world?

The big question is whether human technological achievements are more creative than nature. Can we trust unaided human ingenuity to create the remarkable yet subtle differences that the collaboration between culture, geography and nature create? Human achievements in the arts suggest the answer is “yes” but most art is not a product of “big tech” which is not known for nuance. However, put the technology in the hands of small producers with an interest in creative expression and the wine world might become quite interesting.

As with most new technology, implementation is slower than its proponents claim. But it is here at least in rudimentary form, and we will have to decide which wine world we want to live in. There really is no longer a single wine industry and this will only aggravate the divisions. For people who pull a wine off the bottom shelf of the supermarket for an occasional dinner, this technology will be welcomed. For the rest of us we can stop fighting over the definition of “natural wine” and debate the meaning of “real wine”.

For more on the aesthetics of food and wine visit Edible Arts or consult American Foodie: Taste, Art, and the Cultural Revolution.

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