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Can startup's synthetic wine compete with Napa's best?

| Saturday, Aug. 12, 2017, 9:00 p.m.
Ava Winery co-founder Mardonn Chua samples a sparkling Moscato wine on July 25, 2017 at the company's new location on Illinois Avenue in San Francisco, Calif. The startup has begun to engineer synthetic wine without using grapes. (Jane Tyska/Bay Area News Group/TNS)
Ava Winery co-founder Mardonn Chua samples a sparkling Moscato wine on July 25, 2017 at the company's new location on Illinois Avenue in San Francisco, Calif. The startup has begun to engineer synthetic wine without using grapes. (Jane Tyska/Bay Area News Group/TNS)

SAN FRANCISCO — The founders of Ava Winery spend their days turning water into wine.

They aren't miracle workers. They're chemists with one goal — to reverse engineer the perfect bottle of wine, in a lab, without grapes.

By freeing their wine from the confines of the grape harvest, Ava's founders say they're creating a more environmentally sustainable, predictable and cost-effective beverage. It's the same logic a growing number of food-tech companies already embrace — from Memphis Meats making lab-grown chicken to Clara Foods making animal-free egg whites — as some experts worry about the toll farming and livestock take on the Earth.

Perhaps most importantly, Ava's founders swear the majority of people who taste their wine side by side with a traditional variety can't tell which one is synthetic and which is made from fermented grapes.

“The product we end up with is chemically identical to wine,” co-founder Alec Lee said. “It's indistinguishable at a molecular level.”

The idea for Ava Winery was born when co-founder Mardonn Chua, a chemist and wine enthusiast, caught a glimpse of, but couldn't taste, a bottle of 1973 Chateau Montelena Chardonnay — a rare and world-renowned wine that can sell for more than $10,000 per bottle. In true Silicon Valley fashion, he decided he could re-create that wine. and others. and make them accessible to all wine lovers.

Instead of a winery full of musky-smelling wooden wine barrels that overlooks a Napa vineyard, Ava runs a lab in an industrial corner of San Francisco's Dog Patch neighborhood, a stone's throw from WineWorks winery and Triple Voodoo Brewery. There, the startup's team of chemists use a technique called chromatography to analyze samples of traditional wine - they force small amounts of wine through a device that separates it into its molecular components. Using software to analyze those resulting molecules, the scientists then come up with their own recipe to recreate the original wine.

They start with a base of water and high-proof alcohol distilled from corn, and then add molecules for flavor and aroma such as tartaric acid (a sour flavor), sotolon (notes of maple syrup and caramel) or grindstaff pyrazine (an earthy flavor and bell-pepper-like smell).

I visited Ava recently to try its test tube wine, and brought along Mary Orlin, The Mercury News' food and wine writer, who is also a Sommelier. As soon as the wine was uncorked — we were trying a replica of a Moscato d'Asti, a sparkling, white dessert wine — the conference room we were sitting in was flooded with the smell of tropical fruit.

It looked like white wine — it was pale gold in color, and a tiny stream of bubbles snaked up through the glass.

I took a sip. It tasted like wine — albeit very sweet wine, which I usually avoid. But it was refreshing, with strong peach and banana flavors, and I had no trouble downing my glass.

Orlin was intrigued by the concept of test-tube wine. But as far as she's concerned, Ava hasn't mastered it yet.

“It had very much a synthetic flavor to me,” she said after the tasting. “It tasted like banana bubble gum.”

She suggested plopping an ice cube in the glass and sipping it outside on a hot day - a sentiment I agreed with.

The wine we tasted had been bottled the day before, but that recipe has gone through hundreds of iterations over the past year and a half. Originally intended to be a chardonnay, it came out tasting more like moscato, so the founders said “let's just run with it,” Lee recalled.

But their very first attempt, due to what the founders called a “miscalculation,” was less than delicious.

“It tasted like jelly beans,” said Chua. “Not in a good way.”

The problem was that the founders had eliminated some of the naturally occurring compounds that produce off-flavors in wine as part of the fermentation process. It turned out that even though those flavors aren't considered desirable, the compounds they're associated with are still important to the overall experience of the wine, Lee said.

That didn't surprise Deborah Parker Wong, global wine editor for SOMM Journal and an expert in the science behind wine. No one yet has succeeded in perfectly mapping wine's immensely complex molecular structure, which is the first step to re-creating it, she said.

“I don't see it happening in my lifetime,” she said.

While Wong is fascinated by what Ava is doing — she hasn't tasted the product — she's not willing to call it “wine.”

“It's never going to hold a candle to wine for me,” she said.

The Ava founders admit they haven't perfected their technology or their recipes yet; they're not ready to try re-creating that 1973 Chateau Montelena Chardonnay. But they're still experimenting. In addition to their moscato, they're working on two types of dry red wines, and one dry white, which they say are “very close” to being ready. And they're working on getting approval from the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau to sell their products, though they may not be legally allowed to label them as “wine.”

Meanwhile, Ava's wine is better for the planet, Lee says. It takes between 300 and 1,000 liters of water to make one liter of wine using California grapes, he said, but it takes just five to 10 liters of water to make a liter of wine using corn alcohol. And, unlike 100 percent of the traditional wine Ava tested in its lab, test-tube wine contains no pesticides.

The Ava founders see their work as part of a broader movement — helping society make what they see as an inevitable shift toward synthetic food.

“Our vision for what 500 years from now looks like is: all food is made in this way,” Lee said. “The food we make on Mars when Elon Musk takes us there will be made in this way. We're not going to grow grapes on Mars.”

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