Tim Atkin | Master of Wine

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29th Sep 2018

Is an imitation wine better than a fake?

by Christy Canterbury MW

 

Charles Caleb Colton is originally credited with the phrase, “Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.” Yet it more often is attributed to Oscar Wilde, whose cheeky addition “...that mediocrity can pay to greatness” is frequently omitted.

My thinking about wine imitations began on a warm summer’s evening. Sipping many great (authentic) bottles with industry friends, the topic of fakes surfaced. Then Yang Lu MS, Corporate Director of Wine at the Shangri-La Hong Kong, lobbed the question, “What about imitations rather than fakes?”

Replies fuelled by gut instincts flew across the table. However, as I churned the question in my mind that night, I felt that his query was not so simple to answer. And the more I looked into it, the more I became convinced that the wine industry should examine the question.

Definitions matter

Wrestling with Lu’s question weeks later, I consulted the English Oxford Living Dictionaries.

Fake – “Not genuine; imitation or counterfeit.”

Case closed? Not really.

Counterfeit – “Made in exact imitation of something valuable with the intention to deceive or defraud.” The last two verbs here were a helpful addition. But, “imitation” was used, again. That remained confusing.

Imitation – “1. The action of using someone or something as a model. 2. A thing intended to simulate or copy something else.”

Of course imitation doesn’t have to be deceitful. How else could we have Halloween? It’s the spirit in which the imitation is used that should be questioned.

In the wine world, imitations are nothing new. How many wineries around the globe are working furiously to reproduce New Zealand’s Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc style? How many winemakers of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay outside of Burgundy talk about how their wines espouse a Burgundian aesthetic, whether or not they have a speck of limestone in their vineyards? Dozens upon dozens.

Then I thought about other life arenas in which we encounter things that aren’t “real”. How many women own costume, Mallorica or Majorica “pearls”? Chances are we all have at least one item in our closets stamped “man-made leather.” All of these are made by humans to look like the “real” thing.

I looked around my office. Our surroundings today offer a playing field for the real versus imitation debate. I stumbled upon the work of Grace Jeffers, a US-based Design Historian and Materials Specialist. She points out that many of the words we use regarding fakes are negative: forgery, artificial, synthetic, impostor and cheap. Conversely, Jeffers maintains that real materials generally have positive associations, like natural and organic. (That generally works with food and wine, though “natural” stands on unstable ground in that arena.) Yet, Jeffers argues that many “manmade natural” products are more useful and durable in “real” life.

Aristotle has been attributed with saying that, “Imitation is natural to man from childhood. One of his advantages over the lower animals being this: that he is the most imitative creature in the world, and learns at first by imitation. And it is also natural for all to delight in works of imitation.”

Wine imitation is not only acceptable but common. But, where is the industry heading with the latest methods of creating very good approximations of wine?

Crafting from scratch versus reverse engineering

There are at least two relatively new branches of wine imitation. Both require a substantial amount of analysis of wine’s chemical and sensory elements. The reverse engineering they employ more than imitates a target wine; it almost replicates it.

The chemical analysis of wine is nothing new. There are PhDs a-plenty in a variety of wine science subjects. Analyzing to blend and fine-tune wine happens every day in wineries. Remember Enologix, the Napa-based company that sent waves of outrage (and hope, I should add) through the industry as it helped wineries craft their wines to achieve certain score levels from specific wine critics? Enologix and the many winemaking consultants around the world aim to help wineries achieve maximum marketplace success. 

However, these two new variations of wine imitation involve reverse engineering wines. That is pretty easily done between chromatography and mass spectrometry. It’s not a big deal chemistry-wise. However, will these new methodologies necessitate or render unnecessary Wilde’s addendum to Colton’s quote? As rapidly as humans learn today, it may very well be the latter sooner rather than former. This means there are potentially serious implications for brands and consumers’ perceptions of wine as a beverage.

Replica

Analyze the liquid in an array of bottles that you want to replicate, access a long list of vineyard sources, work with a talented palate or two alongside a skilled winemaker, and you can make what is apparently an excellent “replica” of a highly successful wine.

Replica - “1. An exact copy or model of something, especially one on a smaller scale. 1.1 A duplicate of an original artistic work.”

Replica is the name of a wine brand that does just that. Replica aims to recreate the taste of some of the most popular wine brands in the world. Their targets are large, not limited – as is often the case with fine wine fakes, production items. The company proudly claims that its labels are almost indistinguishable from the “real” bottlings. (I have not tasted them.) Replica makes all of its wines by homing in on a wine’s chemical profile then painstakingly tweaking wines assembled from a variety of sources then further refined in their winery. Replica uses nothing but widely accepted and entirely legal winemaking techniques to create its array of “master forgeries”, as its website calls them.

Some Implications

Piggybacking on the success of others can appear greasy, and this clearly goes far beyond bad Champagne, for example, riding the coat-tails of its most conscientious, quality-driven (or even just brand-driven) neighbors. Replica’s products and motto, “Originality is Overpriced”, reminds me of those imitation designer perfumes in the 1980s. “Do you like Giorgio? You’ll love Primo!”

But could access to wildly successful wine brand imitations at lower prices open the door to new consumers, some who may eventually trade up the quality ladder? Or, will the imitations cannibalize the brands they are imitating? I would guess “maybe” to the first two possibilities but “very possibly” to the latter.

Yet the chemistry side of Replica’s work fascinates me. Like everything else on this planet, wine is made of atoms, which can be traced back to the chemicals on the Periodic Chart of Chemical Elements. The Ellipse lab, created for the reverse engineering of the wines of the Integrated Beverage Group’s Replica line, can test wines for some 500 different attributes and measure the results at the parts-per-billion level.

As Brett Zimmerman MS, who works with Replica and Integrated Beverage Group on the sensory analysis of their wines, said to me on the phone, the analytical work being done in their labs can take our understanding of what we are drinking to new levels. What’s really in your “organic” or “natural” wine? Do you want to be drinking those specific minerals, dissolved metals or viticultural residues? I can definitely see positive future applications.

Ava Winery

In contrast, Ava Winery analyzes a wine then composes a liquid that tastes like that wine but technically is not wine, as wine must be made via fermentation. (Again, I have not tasted any of these products.) On its Angel List funding page, the company states, “We recreate wines from scratch, flavor by flavor, by combining these components at precise levels.” Listed on that web page are the levels of various amino acids, acids, sugars, volatile organics and alcohol that it uses to recreate 1992 Dom Pérignon Champagne. By the way, Ava is a clever name. It sounds nice and is easy to pronounce. Interestingly, it looks like “AVA” for “American Viticultural Area”, yet its products are neither from an American Viticultural Area nor are they made at a real winery.

Some More Implications

Unlike Replica, Ava claims that once it can make a liter of a “wine”, it can make thousands. You know the saying that more 1982 Château Pétrus is sold in Vegas in a year than was ever made? Well, now you can have your 1982 Pétrus and drink it, too. Imagine the implications once the lab perfects a wine as well as its winemaking process. We could sit down to a vertical of, say, Pétrus 2016 straight off the bottling line then at five, ten, 15 years of age. All of them would be, as the company’s Twitter page touts, “Wines without Vines.”

I bet a lot of wine geeks and label chasers would jump to try a simulation of a pre-phylloxera Château Lafite Rothschild (or, pick any wine icon you’d rather taste), even if it isn’t technically wine. Remember the Macallan Scotch scandal of the early aughts? When an abundance of 19th and early 20th century Macallan started flowing into the auctions markets? Macallan bought about 100 bottles at auction and resold many on their website. They also replicated some. Though we now know that Macallan’s Scotch facsimiles were based on post-1950s spirits, the bottles can still be found in the market. They easily sell for $800-plus. Despite the vast amount of information consumers can find at their fingertips, they often don’t bother to look for it or want something so badly that they simply hope fervently that they have the genuine article.

More darkly, the technology created by Ava could make it much easier for dishonest players to proliferate faux “wines” of any age on both retail shelves and in auction catalogs. Or, why not use it to “correct” a short vintage? Or increase the volume of any miniscule production wine? Yes, these fictitious cases represent extremes, but so does the Macallan example.

How can they do this?

Terrified? Insulted? Fascinated? Excited? Whatever your take on this vinous trompe-l’œil, these two maverick companies have done nothing illegal.

In the USA, you cannot patent a flavor. Moreover, differences in vintages and sources may not allow a Replica-like system to maintain a precisely consistent flavor. Zimmerman MS told me that if they are not able to make a label every year because they can’t perfect the flavor, then they wouldn’t.

Not even Ava Winery, with its claimed ability to consistently replicate a specific wine’s flavor, could obtain a patent because a patent requires the invention to be “novel” and “nonobvious” according to the US Patent and Trademark Code. A patentable invention can never have existed previously nor can it be a variation on a previously known invention. Maybe the companies could elsewhere though….

Companies in the USA can, however, patent a method for making a flavor. Integrated Beverage Group’s website states that it “…has created a proprietary, patent-pending methodology to reverse engineer admired wines….” But how useful would a patent really be in the long-term? Patents expire. The Coca-Cola Company protects its beverage formulas as trade secrets, which can exist indefinitely.

Now what?

These approaches to wine should rattle a community that mostly bathes in the philosophical romance that wine is made by nature. However, wine looks as if it could be on a new and strikingly different path to the future. I asked Lu MS if he thinks that imitations could replace or effectively compete with the original. After all, the Hong Kong market sees its share of fake wines and is the gateway to the hotbed of imitations of all types of products.  "No, at least I hope not," he replied. "I haven’t seen any successful long-term imitation brands, at least not in this part of world. The industry is more aggressive on exposing them, and consumers nowadays are more knowledgeable."

The sentimentalist in me hopes so. However, the successful production and distribution of any product must consider consumers’ needs. Sure, there are the brand identity and lifestyle buy-ins, but those affect the wallet. Replica’s Pickpocket retails for $19.99 as opposed to $44.99 for its supposed twin. The dopplegänger North Coast California Retrofit asks $18.99 as to $39.99 for the genuine specimen of Carneros Chardonnay.

It is frequently true that we get what we pay for. Yet we buy lots of generic products, from the grocery store aisles to the pharmacy shelves to the print over the painting. Every consumer does his or her own calculus. In the end, a knockoff is still only an attempt to be the original, and respects neither the heritage of its vines nor its craftsmanship.

The wine industry typically tiptoes around unattractive subjects, sweeps scandals under the closest rug and plays nice in the sandbox, save some spats on Twitter. The spotlight on vinous identity theft has been cast upon the world’s most elusive wines. Passing off fine wine forgeries is clearly illegal. Though certain notorious wine fraudsters have passed away or are spending time in jail, there are still lots of fine wine fakes on the market. Our industry largely tries to – and can – ignore this because it applies to so few wines, even if their commercial values are high.

Now and with haste, we (and especially prestigious brand holders) need to address these admittedly creative and innovative, yet highly worrisome approaches to crafting a beverage. While certain positive outcomes could come from these two methods of reverse engineering, the horizon looks fuzzy. How the scenery turns out will depend on how these reverse engineering methodologies are used in the longer term.

Should every wine be a trade secret? That is surely impossible for a swarm of reasons. Just consider a wine from a single vintage often sees multiple bottlings. Moreover, as wine types love to romanticize, each bottle is “living”.

Change is here and will keep coming whether we want it or not. Transparency generally is increasing in our daily lives with the rise of technology and our digital lifestyles, but if we don’t confront change and educate ourselves on it, we cannot harness it and its possibilities of both the bad and the good.

Now is not the time to think like Oscar Wilde’s Lady Bracknell in The Importance of Being Earnest, “I do not approve of anything that tampers with natural ignorance. Ignorance is like a delicate exotic fruit; touch it and the bloom is gone.”

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