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Would You Drink a Cloned Wine?

Plus, Champagne's Pierre-Emmanuel Taittinger runs for president in France, a multimillion-dollar bulk-wine fraud uncovered, and producer Swizz Beatz collaborates with Bacardi
Bioengineered wines are presumably the perfect pairing with genetically modified organisms.
Photo by: iStock
Bioengineered wines are presumably the perfect pairing with genetically modified organisms.

Posted: July 21, 2016

As a wine lover, how important are terroir and provenance to you? Would you jump at the chance to find out what the 1973 Chateau Montelena Chardonnay Napa Valley tastes like, even if it was made in a test tube? You may soon want to give these questions serious consideration, if a new San Francisco–based company intent on bioengineering replicas of classic wines can meet its founders' expectations.

Scientists Alec Lee and Mardonn Chua are working to replicate high-end wines without grapes, yeast or fermentation. According to Lee, their biggest challenge is not just in identifying the 200 or so molecular compounds that comprise a given wine, but also in determining the ratios in which they exist together. After that, it's simply (Lee says) a matter of replicating each molecular compound in the lab. By mimicking a wine’s molecular profile, he says they can create a synthetic wine at a fraction of the original wine’s cost.

The concept was inspired by the 1973 Montelena. Chua saw it on display in Napa with a 5-figure price tag and thought it a shame that only a handful of people have the opportunity to taste it. “[It’s] tantamount to having the Mona Lisa behind a drape for only a few people to see,” Lee told Unfiltered. “The idea was, ‘What if we could recreate it so that everybody could experience it?’” With that goal in mind, Lee and Chua founded Ava Winery (a play on the acronym for American Viticultural Area) earlier this year. In addition to making "clones" of rare or expensive wines more accessible to Joe Sixpack, the pair predicts that their work will eventually help make food production more affordable, ethical and sustainable.

But before they can save the world, there are quite a few obstacles, including coming up with a name for the product (it’s technically not "wine," at least not in the sense that it was made from grapes). Plus, it’s no secret that wine lovers are almost as attached to the history and origin of a wine as they are to how it tastes. But Lee has an answer to that. “Many wine lovers do care about the process, history and terroir, but it's myopic to assume that everybody is willing to pay a premium for those intangibles. Our hypothesis is that among Millennials, the inherent taste, price and simplicity of our product will be attractive,” he said. And maybe he’s right: Ava's "futures" presale sold out, they've raised $2.5 million and have plans to start shipping to their first customers within the next year.

Taittinger for President?

Jon Wyand
Pierre-Emmanuel Taittinger wants to be France's next president.

It may be a term of derision in politics generally, but "Champagne socialist" could've been a term of endearment in France, where the governing philosophy of wealth redistribution and proletarian control of the means of production was almost as beloved as the Marne's pricey corporate fizz, at least until the stumbles of socialist President Francois Hollande, most recently seen sporting a 12 percent job-approval rating.

So Pierre-Emmanuel Taittinger, patriarch of the Champagne house sharing his name, has thrown his chapeau into the ring for the 2017 French presidential elections as more of a "Champagne independent." For good measure, in his announcement, he bemoaned to L'Union that politics had "become a profession" rather than "temporary action based on experience." Taittinger said he intends to run on a platform of restoring "full employment" to France and solving "the economic and social war inside the country" ahead of fighting wars abroad. Taittinger plainly assessed his chances: "I will be supported by the majority of the French and I will be president in nine months." The Taittingers do have a history of civic involvement, with Pierre-Emmanuel's father, Jean, serving in the Georges Pompidou administration in the 1970s and as the mayor of Reims.

Once national paper Le Figaro picked up the news of Taittinger's ambitions, rude Internet commenters (a group unbounded by any single nationality or philosophy) variously suggested that on the one hand, he couldn't be worse than the guy currently in the presidential chair, but on the other hand, Taittinger's decision appeared to be generously influenced by the effects of his own product. Harrumphed one: "Bubbles, bubbles always, nothing but bubbles! This is the program [of] that gentleman."

Multimillion-Dollar Wine Fraud Uncovered in France

We reported in April that irate French winemakers had hijacked a tanker filled with Spanish bulk wine, emptying its contents into the street. Among their concerns was the possibility of the Spanish bulk wine being brought into France and then being “Frenchified” by being resold as Vin de France, thus undermining the efforts of local winemakers who cannot compete with the lower prices of Spanish table wine.

Now it appears their concerns were not without merit. According to L’Independent, a recent investigation carried out by French customs officials uncovered an unidentified winemaker from Narbonne who bought several truckloads of Spanish table wine, totaling about 330,000 cases worth of wine, for less than $3 a case. He then flipped the cheaper Spanish wine as more expensive French wine to a local merchant for around $7 a case. The winemaker was busted only when French customs officials found discrepancies in his accounting statements, going back as far as 2013. The as-yet-unidentified merchant who bought the wine acknowledged the transaction, but claims he is a victim, being wholly unaware of the fraudulent nature of the wine.

Pending further investigation, a fine of $105,000 has been levied against the winemaker. The real damage comes in the form of validation for some of the more radically minded winemakers of France and what this demonstration of their fears will mean for the decaying relations between the winemakers on either side of the Pyrenees.

Bacardi's New Collabo with Producer Swizz Beatz

Bacardi Ltd. and its brands—Bacardí rum, Grey Goose vodka, Bombay Sapphire gin, Cazadores tequila (don't forget it's National Tequila Day this Sunday!) and Dewar's Scotch (National Scotch Day is Wednesday!), among many others—are all pretty accomplished when it comes to putting together a mixed beverage. So it makes sense the drinks giant just brought on board one of the greatest mixers of all time, Grammy-winning mix-tape legend, rapper and producer to the stars Swizz Beatz. (For those of you who didn't spend your late-'90s Friday nights listening to Hot 97, Swizz Beatz has worked with most of the biggest names in hip-hop and R&B, from Whitney Houston to Dr. Dre to Nas to Jay Z to Kanye West to Justin Bieber, not to mention his wife, Alicia Keys.) Last week it was announced that the cultural renaissance man (who is also an avid art collector, fashion designer, VP of "sports style" at Reebok and a former brand rep for Aston Martin) has been named Bacardi Ltd.'s global chief creative for culture.

Swizz Beatz talked to Wine Spectator sister site Shanken News Daily about his newest collaboration: "This deal is the first of its kind, and hopefully people will see it as a blueprint to integrate with culture in more creative ways. It’s not about paying people to hold a drink in a club. We’re going to integrate the brand with culture in ways that are genuine and ways that give back, and do it on a global scale. It’s totally different from anything else I’ve done in the past. We’re going to be holding four no-commission art fairs a year—two in the U.S. and two outside the U.S.—where artists receive 100 percent of profits for their work. But we’ll also be touching into film, fashion, culinary, music, sports, technology and immersive experiences. When you drink Bacardi, it will happen organically because of these platforms we’ve created. And not only that, if you have a creative idea, or a project that’s unique, you can now come to us."

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