Ari Walker had been working in the wine business for a few months when the dreams started. He didn’t know much about wine; he’d left college and taken a job at a distributor because his wife was pregnant and they needed money. But the more he tasted and read, the more entranced he became. Soon she was shaking him in his sleep, telling him he was mumbling about food pairings. “You mentioned Nebbiolo,” she’d say, referencing an Italian grape variety. “And blood sausage.”
In 2001, after a few more jobs in the industry, Walker started an import and distribution company with a partner: Kevin Hicks, an entrepreneur who’d made a fortune with an online rating system for doctors and hospitals. By the time we met, at a wine event in Boulder a few years later, he had amassed an impressive portfolio and was living an enviable lifestyle. But his business was going broke.
Walker was spending much of his time tracking down unusual wines from viticultural regions around Italy. They had singular flavors and compelling stories. But the vast majority of American wine drinkers, he’d come to understand, have little interest in those stories. They want wine that tastes good and doesn’t cost much. So Walker and Hicks created a cheap brand that could be sold at volume to subsidize the imports, but that didn’t work, either. There were too many in the market already, all trying to solve the same problem with a mediocre product. “The question we tried to answer was, how do we make these generic wines better?” Walker says. “We looked at all sorts of stuff but had a hard time moving the needle.”
The breakthrough started with baby food. In 2012, Hicks was about to become a father. He started wondering what, exactly, was in the organic, premium-priced products that he and his wife were planning to feed their newborn, so he sent samples off for laboratory analysis. “If you know Kevin,” Walker says, “you understand that that’s just totally something he would do.” When the bills—as much as $1,500 for a single sample—started to add up, Hicks created a lab of his own, which he dubbed Ellipse Analytics. He had a bigger plan. He invested several million dollars in equipment and hired a team of scientists and technicians and before long, Ellipse had enticed paying clients to commission chemical breakdowns of entire consumer categories, like protein powders and sunscreens. Walker saw the potential for wine, and he pushed Hicks to use his technology for their own business.
Like anything else, wine is a combination of chemicals. Ellipse can test for some 500 different attributes and measure the results at the parts-per-billion level. Hidden in that data, Walker realized, were the precise combinations of esters and acids and proteins and anthocyanins and other polyphenols that make a wine taste creamy or flinty, or give it aromas of blueberries or vanilla or old leather—the chemical compositions of America’s most popular wines. Walker also knew that most wine gets a boost from additives such as Mega Purple (for color), oak extract (for tannins and flavoring), and similar chemistry-set concoctions. Using cheap surplus wines readily available on the bulk market and blending in natural additives, he thought, it might be possible to make some pretty convincing copies of popular premium wines.
In 2015, Walker and Hicks started Integrated Beverage Group and set out to duplicate wines that they knew Americans already liked. They planned to do this in plain sight, naming their brand Replica and urging consumers to compare their products with well-known names that usually cost as much as double the price. It didn’t take long before they realized that, in most cases, even professional critics couldn’t distinguish their facsimiles from the originals.
In a gray concrete building, part of a grim-looking industrial complex north of downtown Denver, four glasses of wine are lined up at each place around a conference table. It’s a Tuesday afternoon at the IBG offices. Walker sits across from me, wearing a trim beard and a sweater over a button-down shirt. Next to him is a scruffy man in his thirties who has the chemical structure of dopamine tattooed on his left arm. That’s Sean Callan, a PhD chemist who runs the Ellipse Lab.
Brett Zimmerman, one of fewer than 250 certified Master Sommeliers in the world, is at one end of the table to my right, typing notes into a laptop. To my left is IBG’s winemaker, Everett, who has just arrived from California. I’m calling him Everett and not his real name because he also works as an enologist for a large American wine producer, precisely the kind of industry giant that IBG is looking to undercut. “If they found out I was doing this,” he tells me, “it wouldn’t turn out well.”
Two years after IBG was started, Replica wines are sold in 49 states (everywhere but Iowa), in major retailers such as Publix in the south and Winco in the west. Because of the substantial investments needed to build the lab and start the brand, the company isn’t yet profitable. But by other metrics, its concept has been a remarkable success. Sitting in the conference room, I watch the process unfold.
The sample to the far left at everyone’s place is the one the IBG team is trying to match, a 2015 Far Niente Chardonnay. A highly respected name in California wine, Far Niente makes Chardonnays that sell for $60 in retail shops and $100 on wine lists. The wines have a singular style that places them somewhere between the robustness of most Napa Chardonnays and the nuanced flavors of white Burgundy. A West Coast retail chain has placed an order with IBG for a proprietary Napa Chardonnay with attributes that track Far Niente’s. The deadline to ship the wines, I’m surprised to learn, is only two weeks away. Yet the IBG team is still in the preliminary stages of tasting and blending. “We’ll get it done,” Walker assures me. He has already named the wine Per Sempre. That’s “forever” in Italian. More important, it sounds like Far Niente.
The previous week at his office in Sonoma, Everett had tasted through more than 70 lots of Chardonnay that are on offer from a Napa-based wine broker for purchase in varying volumes— some only a few hundred gallons, others several thousand. He chose two that seemed as though they might be a fit in a potential blend. One was from a boutique vintner in St. Helena. The other came from a massive producer, one of America’s most famous, that grows grapes all over California and makes millions of bottles of wine each year for its numerous brands. He bought as much of the first wine as he could, and about the same amount of the second wine.
Glasses of the two of them also sit before each of us now, beside the benchmark Far Niente. To the far right in the lineup is a preliminary blend of the two potential components in roughly equal proportions. To help the team understand where it should be aiming, a graph projected on a screen identifies more than a dozen aromatic attributes present in most California Chardonnays, and to what degree the half-dozen or so most popular brands contain each of them. The data is culled from an Ellipse analysis, and the results from the various brands match almost exactly.
What consumers want in the category, it turns out, is remarkably consistent. In several areas, though, Far Niente is an outlier: most notably in the presence of citrus and the absence of butter and coconut. The Far Niente also has a far higher level than the other wines of malic acid, which is found in lime juice, and there’s a reason for that. Unlike both lots of the purchased wines (and the vast majority of Napa Chardonnays), it hasn’t undergone the secondary fermentation that transforms malic acid into lactic acid and changes the taste of green apple into cream or butter. I don’t get how Everett will be able to combine two wines that have undergone malolactic fermentation into one that tastes like it hasn’t, but he’s not concerned. “We can add back malic acid in the blending,” he says.
The coconut is harder. All three wines have been fermented in barrels rather than steel tanks. But different kinds of oak have different characteristics. “The Far Niente shows clove and raw wood,” Everett says, “rather than the caramel, vanilla, and coconut I’m getting from the others.” Back home, Everett has a table covered with vials of wood flavoring that he might be able to use to nudge the profile of the wine closer to Far Niente’s by literally blending it into the wine. “But barrel fermented wines are hard,” Zimmerman points out. “That’s probably the hardest thing we do.”
With certain red wines, which are easier to replicate than whites, IBG has come within a few percentage points of matching the components at a parts-per-billion level. That includes a whole lot of attributes that a wine drinker will never detect. What’s more crucial is nailing the handful of attributes that define the wine for the casual drinker, those points of difference that deviate from the norm. It’s like Alec Baldwin playing Donald Trump on Saturday Night Live. When you see him on the screen, scowling and doing that little turn of his wrist, you’re not fooled into thinking that’s really Trump. It obviously isn’t. But it’s equally obvious whom he’s imitating.
Walker and the IBG team try to do the same with wine. If they can hit the most blatant elements of a popular bottling using inexpensive bulk wine and a bunch of additives, they’ll be in business. Some perceive this as undermining those ineffable elements that make wine different from, say, toothpaste. In a full-page feature, the Santa Rosa Press-Democrat, a newspaper based in Sonoma County that is perceived as the voice of the California wine industry, characterized Replica’s products as “Frankenstein wines.” “While Replica wine doesn’t begin in a petri dish,” it said, “it is created, to a large degree, in a lab.” This doesn’t trouble Walker. “You could say it’s weird,” Walker says of IBG’s process. “Or you could say it’s our point of difference.”
The boutique Chardonnay matches many of the attributes of Far Niente. But adding too much of the other wine to it, all agree, pulls the blend in the wrong direction. We try a blend of three-quarters boutique and one-quarter mass producer, then one closer to 85 percent boutique. The result still doesn’t seem right. Eventually, Zimmerman, who has the best palate of the group, argues for not including any of the wine from the major producer. “Even in the small amount, it takes away the zippy tone that we’re getting from the Far Niente,” he says. That “zippy tone,” a palpable sense of energy coursing through the wine, is one of the most recognizable attributes of the Far Niente. If you’re imitating Trump, that’s the jut of his lower lip. If you don’t have that, you don’t have a match.
Everett admits that no combination of the wines matches the Far Niente better than the boutique wine by itself. But there just isn’t enough of it to make the number of bottles that the retailer has ordered. They need to blend that with something that’s less ideal, but not so much of it that it moves the wine noticeably away from the benchmark. “So the question becomes,” he says, “how much can you feather it up before you have a deal-breaker?”
The following afternoon, Callan walks me through the Ellipse facility, which consists of a single room in the same concrete building, down the hall from Walker’s office. As labs go, it isn’t a particularly large one. Along one wall, a woman in a ski hat is prepping samples of dietary supplements for one of Ellipse’s clients. In a storage nook off the main room, I spot a cart loaded with bottles of wine. “Those are California Pinot Noirs,” Callan says. “We’re doing that next.”
Over the past four years, Ellipse has analyzed thousands of wines, a formidable chunk of the American marketplace. More than anyone else, it is safe to say, the IBG team can scientifically define what the most popular wines taste like. “Only we, uniquely, have this data to say, ‘If you like Goldeneye, we know exactly why you like Goldeneye,’” Walker says about a California Pinot Noir that IBG will soon be trying to replicate. “And we know what else you’re likely to like. And what you won’t.”
IBG can’t replicate every wine. Those with singular attributes, like wines made from grapes grown in a specific vineyard or from a hard-to-find variety, are far more difficult, bordering on impossible, for the simple reason that all of IBG’s wines start with those surplus lots being sold on the bulk market. When I ask Zimmerman if they could replicate a small-batch Shiraz from a producer in Australia’s Adelaide Hills that is a particular favorite of mine, he rolls his eyes and says there’s no way.
But the world’s most popular wines—from Kendall-Jackson Chardonnay to Dom Perignon—are made hundreds of thousands of bottles at a time, enough volume that their grapes are sourced from a range of vineyards. “The reason K-J is so successful,” Hicks says about Kendall-Jackson, “is that it tastes consistent, year after year, bottling after bottling. You know what you’re going to get, like Coca-Cola or Campbell’s soup.” If Kendall-Jackson is using what seems like a fairly exact recipe to make each vintage of its wines, Hicks figures, there’s no reason that IBG, with its reams of scientific data, can’t match it.
Two weeks later, I get on a plane to California and visit Everett at the office he uses in downtown Healdsburg, in Sonoma County. The building happens to be an old winery where some of the earliest California Zinfandels were made in the late 1800s. Everett is still making wine there, in a sense, doing things like adding malic acid to the Per Sempre blend to simulate the energy of the original. He then overnights the results back to Colorado for Zimmerman to taste and Ellipse to analyze. That back-and-forth gets them closer and closer to their target. When I arrive, he pulls out a bottle of the finished Per Sempre, which is labeled and ready to be sold, and pours each of us a glass. “It’s much more Far Niente-ish, don’t you think?” he says. “See how the addition of the malic brought back a little of the flintiness?”
I do. Back at IBG, I’d submitted to a blind comparison test involving another of their wines, called Label Envy, which is meant to replicate La Crema Pinot Noir. Callan had poured two glasses of one wine and one glass of another and asked me to identify which two were similar. I thought I knew, but I was wrong. They’d hit their target precisely. The simulacrum Everett handed me seemed maybe a little clunkier, a little less graceful, than the actual Far Niente I had in Denver. But it definitely was closer. And without a glass of the original in front of me for comparison, or perhaps even with one, I could easily be convinced that it was the same wine.
If you’re an average drinker, you aren’t interested in parsing the flavors in your Napa Chardonnay or constructing a critical analysis. You just want to sip a glass of something nice with roast chicken. For that, the Per Sempre might serve the purpose just as well as the Far Niente. The packaging looks handsome enough that you wouldn’t hesitate to bring it to a dinner party, and it would cost $25 as opposed to the $50 you’d pay for the Far Niente “I’d drink it,” Everett pronounces.
After tasting the wine, we drive toward Everett’s house on the outskirts of Healdsburg. We cross a small bridge, then continue down a gentle hill. We rumble down a country lane, past small vineyards where the buds are just starting to break. Being here, you can’t help but feel the attraction of the tales people tell about wine, including how they explain the attributes in each bottle that make it a topic for contemplation and not just consumption.
That freshness? It’s from the difference in temperature between the warm nights and cool days in this particular valley. That resistance in the mouth, the little push-and-pull that can taste like a tea bag left too long in hot water but provides a framework to help offset the plush fruit? That comes from the ocean wind that toughens the skin of these grapes. “When you get out in the country, there’s a certain amount of romance,” Everett says. He’s quiet for a moment. “But there is also a chemical and scientific aspect to this, too,” he continues. “It’s the juxtaposition of those things that’s attractive to me.”
We step inside a cottage beside his house, which is where he does much of the tasting and blending for Replica. A table off the kitchen is covered with small bottles, samples of bulk lots of Pinot Noir available for purchase that will be used to help match Goldeneye. In the work he does for his day job, Everett starts with grapes as his raw material. He oversees the fermentation process, which lets him make decisions that will go a long way toward determining how a finished wine tastes. But he’s also at the mercy of what his employer’s vineyard holdings have given him. When he starts with wine that already has been made, he gets to taste dozens of possibilities from sites all over Napa, Sonoma, and beyond. And then he works with only those that he chooses.
“This is someone’s reject wine,” he says, pouring out a Pinot Noir sample for me to taste. “But why was it rejected? Was it great wine that just didn’t match stylistically with what they were trying to do? Was it second-best to the other lots that they had? Did they just have too much of it? And at the end of the day, does it matter? Not to me.” He holds the glass against a piece of white paper to get a better look at the color of the wine. He takes a sip. “Now, maybe this one is just a little too tart for whoever made it,” he admits. “That’s why they sold it off. But we can fix that, too.”
Before leaving California, I stop at Far Niente. I’ve visited before, and I never get tired of it. The setting is delightful, an 1885 winery building surrounded by gingko trees and plum blossoms. The late Gil Nickel, who renovated the disused winery and created Far Niente in the 1970s, started in Oklahoma as a horticulturist. He wanted to make Far Niente the gem of Napa Valley, as beautiful as any winery in the world.
That landscaping needs to be maintained, of course. So does the collection of classic sports cars in an adjacent barn. Far Niente employs several winemakers, and also a team of gardeners, and chefs who prepare the lunches it serves to wine club members in a clearing overlooking the vineyards. When you buy a bottle of Far Niente, you’re paying for the whole package: the wine itself, its reputation, and the enticing site that makes the narrative possible.
Yet, in a sense, the wines made at Far Niente are no more authentic than Replica’s. Even the finest wines exist as the sum of hundreds of decisions in the vineyard and the winery, each designed to help steer the wine—or manipulate it, if you want to use that word—in a desired direction. I have no idea whether Far Niente’s enologists typically acidify their wines to freshen them in warm vintages or add tannins to help balance soft fruit flavors, but plenty of wineries do—such additions are perfectly legal. It’s also within the rules in California to blend in as much as 15 percent of wine from a different vintage than the one on the label, and different grape varieties, and even grapes from somewhere else entirely.
And that doesn’t even get into other standard practices of winemaking, such as jump-starting fermentation with commercial yeasts and reducing alcohol levels by sending the wine through a contraption called a spinning cone column. None of these figure in the romantic narrative of letting nature make the wine. But if they make the wine we’re drinking tonight taste better, few of us would argue against them.
When I enter the old stone Far Niente winery, I’m offered a glass of Chardonnay off a silver tray. It’s the 2016, not the 2015 that Per Sempre is modeled on, but that same energy is on full display. I carry the glass out to a balcony off the main building and stand in the afternoon sunshine. The wine is delicious. There are vines below and olive trees and a view of Oakville and the hills beyond. I take a moment to notice that particular green-apple taste and the hint of cinnamon aroma that comes from the particular barrels used to ferment and age the wine. Did the Per Sempre I tasted with Everett have that too? Perhaps it did. The truth is, I can’t remember.