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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.


Peg Melnik’s Tasting Room blog

“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.”

No lawsuits

Consternation has not found its way into the courts.

Walker said no one has tried to sue his company or challenge it for copyright infringement. He said Replica, which launched in June of 2016, is on sound legal footing, pointing out that there are generic brands in supermarkets that also imitate more expensive products.

“We hope the winemakers are flattered to know their wines inspired Replica,” Walker said.

Spokesmen for four benchmark wines preferred not to comment, and their labels include: Kendall-Jackson, 2014 Vintner’s Reserve California Chardonnay; Joel Gott, 2014 California (815) Cabernet Sauvignon; Meiomi, 2014 Monterey, Sonoma County and Santa Barbara counties Pinot Noir; and the Prisoner Red Blend.

Walker said Replica is on the lookout for more popular wines or “benchmarks” to imitate, and this year it will produce more than 45,000 cases.

“We are currently evaluating the possibility of introducing Replicas of an ultra-premium Napa cabernet sauvignon, a Napa merlot, as well as a Replica from France’s Champagne region,” he said. “We select benchmark. top performing wine brands that we feel are overpriced in the market, based upon our ability to replicate the same aromas and flavors while delivering a discount to consumers of at least 15 percent.”

Winemaking disruptor

Walker was quoted in Popular Science, quipping that his approach to winemaking is “disruptive.” But Dr. Andrew Waterhouse, a professor at UC Davis, who was also quoted in the article, said “there’s a whole industry of wine consulting laboratories … What’s unique about Replica is simply that it’s openly admitting to the copying.”

Jordan Wardlaw, a wine specialist at Santa Rosa’s Bottle Barn, agreed.

“It’s not anything new in that any number of winemakers are trying to replicate a Meiomi or a La Crema bottling, but marketing it this way is new to me,” he said. “This is a different paradigm in selling wine. It smacks of something I would see in the shampoo aisle at the local Safeway.”

Wardlaw said before Bottle Barn would carry a brand like Replica, many people on staff would have to taste it and then come to some consensus.

“Ideally, we like to approach something like this with as much integrity as ever, but if a brand is hot, we’re going to go out there and sell it … I can see the brand succeeding in a certain niche, but I don’t see it competing with fine wine, especially not here in Wine Country where there is bound to be some backlash. People recognize the real thing.”

Walker said the brand has “exploded” on the East Coast, especially in New York, Virginia and Georgia.

“Millennial consumers and younger Gen Xers seem to be the primary consumers, and they’re primarily female,” he said.

To quantify “explosion,” Walker said more than 10,000 cases were sold to the East Coast during the second half of 2016, which represented 55 percent of total sales that year.

“Our customer is interested in exploring new wines,” Walker said. “She is really smart and well educated … she is less interested in wine as a status symbol.”

Sarah Liedlich, 25, of Santa Rosa, fits the profile Walker described, and she’s open to trying the Replica brand.

“I don’t shy away from any brand,” she said. “To me, if it tastes good, I’m in. In grocery stores, I usually look for a label I like. To me, a label means a lot. If I saw Pickpocket I’d probably choose it because the name is kind of funny.”

The Sonoma State University graduate said it doesn’t matter to her that Replica relies, to a large degree, on a chemistry lab to create its wines.

“I love science,” Liedlich said. “Rock on.”

Wine writer Peg Melnik can be reached at peg.melnik@pressdemocrat.com or 707-521-5310.

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