“Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.”
— Oscar Wilde
Frankenstein wine? In Healdsburg’s Rack & Riddle, a custom crush facility, a brand is being created in a laboratory of sorts.
The brand is called Replica Wine, and it relies heavily on chemistry to replicate popular brands, offering customers a savings of 15 percent or more. For example, it tempts consumers with a bottling it likens to the Kendall-Jackson Vintner’s Reserve Chardonnay for $11, undercutting KJ’s $17 price.
“When you talk about the lab, people start to think you’re making Frankenstein wine, and that’s not the case, but it’s not traditional, classic winemaking,” said Ari Walker, CEO of Denver’s Integrated Beverage Group LLC, which produces the wine.
Replica has eight bottlings with mischievous names like Pickpocket, Misbehaved and Label Envy. Its irreverent website, replicawine.com, states its unabashed mission: “Unapologetically recreating your favorite wines.” It argues that “Originality is overpriced.”
While Replica wine doesn’t begin in a petri dish, it is created, to a large degree, in the lab.
In this case, Walker explained, the wine is developed with an analytical chemistry lab rather than a synthetic one so no chemicals are added to the wines.
So how does it work?
Bulk wine is purchased and brought into the custom crush facility. Then a winemaker uses sensory analysis to find the closest match to a wine the company wants to imitate.
The wine is then sent off to the lab and Brett Zimmerman, a master sommelier, for quantitative analysis. Feedback is given to the winemaker and this process repeats itself, with up to seven iterations of the wine.
95 percent promise
Walker said the brand promises a 95 percent chemical match for macro components and a 90 percent match for micro components. It uses a database that contains 560 “analytes” or chemical compounds that can be identified and measured and they include aromas, flavors and mouth-feel.
While the wine is made locally, you won’t find it on the shelves of retail outlets in Sonoma County just yet. That said, the wine has piqued the interest of some people in Wine Country with positive reviews in some credible wine publications. The Wine Enthusiast magazine, for example, rated the 2014 vintage of the Knockoff 90 points on a 100 point scale.
The naysayers on the other end of the spectrum, find the brand disingenuous.
“I’ve gotten a certain amount of hate mail, and it tends to come from the purist segment of the wine industry,” Walker said. “There’s a mindset that exists in some quarters of the wine industry that almost relates to a religious devotion of what the romantic notion of wine is supposed to be. But that’s not from consumers. It’s from people in the wine industry.”
John Holdredge is one of those vintners who finds Replica’s winemaking off-putting. The co-owner of Healdsburg’s Holdredge Wines doubles as its winemaker.
“I always thought the beauty of wine is that it captures a moment in place and time, not that it hits ‘60 different taste and aroma markers.’ I suppose this appeals to the same people who put the fake Tesla body on the Volkswagen chassis,” he said.
Co-vintner Mark McWilliams of Healdsburg’s Arista Winery agrees with Holdredge.
“‘This above all — to thine own self be true,’” McWilliams said. “Call me a purist but the appeal to me with wine is its genuineness, its authenticity. The romance of wine is about the place, the person that grew it, the person that made it … I suppose there are people that don’t really care about that. I think this isn’t too much different than buying fake Louis Vuitton bags from a back alley in New York City. I assume the same person that buys the fake purse would buy the imitation wine? They don’t really appreciate the hard work, skill, and cost associated with the authentic product. If they did, they wouldn’t support the cheap knockoff.”
Comparing Tasting Notes
Benchmark — Kendall-Jackson, 2014 Vintner’s Reserve California Chardonnay, 13.5%, $17: The Vintner’s Reserve has bright acidity and tropical notes of mango and pineapple. It also has toasty oak and a hint of butter. This chardonnay has broad appeal because it offers a slightly sweeter version of chardonnay.
Knockoff, 2014 California Chardonnay, 13.8%, $11: This wine does not taste similar to the Vintner’s Reserve because it’s a much leaner chardonnay. That said, it still has some appeal. It’s a fruity wine with notes of melon, apple and mineral. But what’s most characteristic about this wine is its stone fruit and crisp acidity.
Benchmark — Joel Gott, 2014 California (815) Cabernet Sauvignon, 13.9%, $16: Tasty aromas and flavors of cherry, plum and mocha. Slightly sweet, but this wine definitely over delivers.
Just Right, 2014 California Cabernet Sauvignon, 13.9%, $13: This wine does not taste similar to the Joel Gott Cabernet Sauvignon. It’s not nearly as generous with its fruit. It also has some rough edges and a slightly sour finish. The upside is it has some tasty black cherry fruit, and it’s layered with herbs and spice.
Benchmark — Meiomi, 2014 Monterey, Sonoma and Santa Barbara counties Pinot Noir, 13.9%, $25: Aromas of strawberry and mocha. Notes of blackberry, boysenberry and herbs on the palate. Supple. Lingering finish. Well crafted.
Misbehaved, 2015 California Pinot Noir, 13.8%, $16: This wine does not taste similar to the Meiomi Pinot Noir. It’s a dry wine with notes of cherry and plum. It’s one dimensional and has a short finish.