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How a biotech start-up is making expensive wines without grapes

Ava Winery makes wine through chemistry, not grapes.
Photo: Emily Higginbotham | Ava Winery
Ava Winery makes wine through chemistry, not grapes.

One of the top bucket-list items for wine connoisseurs is a chance to try one of the winning wines from the Judgment of Paris.

The 1976 wine competition pitted California Chardonnays and red wines against French offerings. The world expected France to easily walk away with a victory, but when the (French) judges finished their blind tasting, California scored top honors in both categories — and subsequently became a major force on the world wine scene.

Getting your hands on one of those original bottles — such as the 1973 Chateau Montelena Chardonnay, which won the white category — will cost you tens of thousands of dollars. (In 2010 a bottle of that wine sold for $11,325 at auction.) But what if you could buy an exact replica, precisely recreated molecule by molecule, for less money than you likely have in your wallet right now?

Ava Winery is trying to make that happen. Rather than trying to reconstruct the terroir and conditions those grapes experienced, though, this San Francisco start-up, founded by two bioengineering grads last year, is foregoing things like grapes and yeast altogether. Instead, it's using chemicals instead of grapes or fermentation to replicate wine.

"We analyze the molecular profile of a wine; then we can recreate it," says Alec Lee, co-founder of Ava. "Once we make one liter, we can make 10,000 liters."

Ava Winery makes wine through chemistry, not grapes.
Photo: Emily Higginbotham | Ava Winery
Ava Winery makes wine through chemistry, not grapes.

The chemistry of fake wine

While most winemakers focus on the quality of the grapes and the effect that soil and weather conditions have had on each year's harvest, Lee and his partners — Mardonn Chua (who like Lee has a biotech background) and Josh Decolongon (a sommelier) — view the creation of wine as a chemistry experiment, bonding a combination of amino acids, sugars, ethanol and other elements together. By doing so, says Ava, the company can recreate the tastes not only of various wine styles but of individual bottles.

Ultimately, Ava hopes to ship reds, whites and sparkling wines, with offerings in each category ranging from dry to sweet. (Lee declined to go into specific varietals it's working on.) First, though, the company needs to perfect its offerings, getting the molecular structure just right. Lee says one of their wines is "production ready," but others still need some work.

Simultaneously, a team is working within Ava to ensure it conforms with both federal and state shipping rules for when it begins distribution. (Even though it's not made with grapes, the product contains alcohol and will be regulated like any other wine.)

Ava hopes to begin shipping its product to retailers by the end of 2017. While it hasn't nailed down pricing, Lee says the goal is to target less than $20 per bottle.

Ava is using chemicals instead of grapes or fermentation to replicate wine.
Source: Ava Winery
Ava is using chemicals instead of grapes or fermentation to replicate wine.

"One of the value propositions is, you're getting the quality of a $500 bottle of wine for whatever the price ends up being, and you can have it over and over," Lee says. "It's not like any other vintage of wine that eventually runs out."

The company's backers include Horizons Ventures, and it has so far raised $2.7 million in seed capital. It plans to undertake a Series A funding round this summer.

Consumer palates

Ava's success, naturally, depends on the taste of the final product. Will the taste convince wine lovers to give it a try? And will it be good enough to convince them to keep buying it?

Also, wine from grapes is one thing, but there is some natural skepticism about wine made without them. Ava, though, will still have to pass muster with the Food and Drug Administration, just as Impossible Foods did when it unveiled the "Impossible Burger," a vegan burger that reportedly tastes and has the same characteristics (including the juiciness and sizzle) of a meat-based one.

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Lee concedes that the start-up is not yet at the point where it's able to perfectly recreate wines, but says the difference is so slight that he doesn't expect anyone to be able to distinguish Ava's product from that of a traditional winery.

"Right now they will be able to tell the difference between the two wines, but if they have any shred of intellectual honesty, they won't be able to tell which was natural wine and which was made by us," he says. "It tastes like wine. The experience you have is of wine. There's no indication that the thing you're drinking is not wine. Basically, people can tell which is ours by random chance — and no better than that."

The Ava Winery team.
Photo: Emily Higginbotham | Ava Winery
The Ava Winery team.

The business model

Ava Winery is looking to take a slightly different path than many start-ups. Once the technology is perfected, Lee says, the company doesn't want to license it out or seek a buyer. Instead, it plans to keep it proprietary for at least a while.

"I'd like to create a brand around Ava or whatever brand [name] we go with," he says. "One of the key things for us is the future of food. If we really care about these luxury foods, how do we increase the accessibility and sustainability of those?"

And as you might guess by that statement, Ava has no plans to stop with wine.

"We don't want to simply be limited to wine," says Lee. "If you look at the canvas of food, the molecules that are edible — carbs, proteins, fats — the fundamental things that make food food are pretty common, whether you're talking about wine or burgers. They still have carbs. They still have water. They still have lipids. [Not only does] technology have the capacity to change and disrupt wine, it has the capability to change those [food] markets as well."

— By Chris Morris, special to CNBC.com

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