Alec Lee clones wines in his laboratory – no grapes required. As co–founder of Ava Winery, he’s built a 460–square–metre facility in San Francisco to assemble vino molecule by molecule. First up: a batch of five that includes a Pinot Noir and Moscato d’Asti. “The thesis is to let people access luxury foods in a way that hasn’t traditionally been possible,” says Lee, 28.
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To achieve this, eight scientists at Ava mimic the hundreds of compounds that give a wine its taste, aroma and body. In the lab, they use gas and liquid chromatography coupled with mass spectrometry: techniques that reduce substances into their component parts.
“This allows us to take a raw material, separate each molecule, then identify and quantify it,” Lee explains. This way they can analyse the wine’s precise molecular profile and home in on the compounds that give it its unique flavour. Next, they source those molecules from companies which synthesise them commercially for the food industry. “There are a host of natural sources for the components; it’s just a matter of extracting them,” Lee says. “A peachy smell in a moscato is caused by the same molecule as you’d find in an actual peach, for instance.”
Mixed in precise amounts with water, ethanol and sugars to make the liquid, the molecules produce a flavour copy of the original wine. “That’s coupled with techniques to modify the compounds to simulate the effects of ageing,” he adds.
Since Ava’s inception in 2015, its experimental wines have received mixed reviews. However, Lee claims that the tools of extraction have become more sophisticated and sensitive, which means it’s now better equipped to identify the right compounds and pursue its goal of precisely mimicking a wine.
The Moscato d’Asti, which Ava has been working on the longest, has performed consistently well in blind-taste tests, Lee says.
By the end of 2017, Ava Winery aims to have its products on US shelves, with plans to expand into Asia and Europe. “I’m confident people will buy a bottle,” Lee says. “But I’m hoping they will buy a second, which will be down to the taste. That’ll be the ultimate affirmation of what we’re doing.”