Is the future of wine and food synthetic?

The definition of synthetic is a substance made by chemical synthesis to imitate a natural product, and it is a word that is growing in importance and value as a rush of new companies seeks to reinvent food as we know it.

“The future of food is synthetic,” said Alec Lee, co-founder of Ava Winery, a new startup based in San Francisco. “Producing synthetic food is basically the next technology boom. Food tech is going crazy right now.”

Along with his partners, Lee recently started the winery and within six months had received nearly $3 million in seed funding from venture-capital firm Horizons Venture, the U.S.-based Collaborative Fund and a few other angel investors.

“We’ve had a lot of interest,” Lee said. “Part of the reason for that is that number one, consumer adoption of synthetic food is staggering (for example, Impossible Foods, Soylent and Beyond Meat), and number two, what we can do now is at a peak, historically — we could never have done this even a few years back.”

The founders of Ava Winery are like many other millennials in that they’ve started multiple companies.

“I’ve started and run a medical test prep company that I still advise,” Lee said. “And before starting this company, both I and one of my co-founders, Mardonn Chua, had created a stem-cell company that used novel techniques to extract mesenchymal stem cells from bone marrow. We’re no longer actively involved in that. Instead, in 2015 we started thinking about making synthetic wine.”

Chua and Lee both graduated from a biotech program at the University of British Columbia. Recently they’ve brought in a fellow UBC graduate and certified sommelier, Josh Decolongon.

The goal of Ava Winery is to produce a wine that is as good as existing wines, including such stalwarts as the 1992 Dom Pérignon Champagne and the ’73 Chateau Montelena, which won the 1976 Paris Tasting in France, becoming one of the most famous wines in California. They have set their sights on imitating some of the finest brands in the world, hoping to produce wines that people will enjoy without much thought about where they come from.

“Ultimately we want to make a beverage that tastes like the wines people know and love,” Lee said. “Of course we’ll want to improve on them, too, making them even better.”

What Ava Winery is doing is not only about making wine.

“Beyond just making wine, this is also a proof of concept, too,” Lee said. “Wine is one of the most beloved foods out there — nothing is as important socially as wine. Wine is thought of as romantic, from the land, historic. If we can crack this nut, then we have really made a statement.”

Other reasons for making synthetic wines include that they could be low-cost, potentially healthier and have less impact on the environment.

“All synthetic foods are more sustainable than those made in more typical ways,” Lee said. “It takes 500 to 1,000 liters of water to make 1 liter of wine, and the impact on the environment can be significant. Production of tech food is often low-cost, can match or surpass its natural counterparts in taste, nutrition and sustainability, and can be made anywhere and at any time. These wines can also be potentially better for the people drinking them — we can leave out the sulfites, for example.”

When asked about current trends towards organic and locally sourced food, Lee is not shy about sharing his views.

“The writing is on the wall for organic — it’s just a marketing scam,” he said. “It often takes more resources to grow organic than more conventional foods, and the nutritional benefits seem negligible. Mostly big corporations are using the word ‘organic’ to justify a 40 percent to 60 percent increase in their prices. And the locavore movement is pretty nuts, too. The cost of transport is pretty low, and growing things where they aren’t well-suited only causes more issues.”

For now, Ava Winery is focused on wine and improving their process while they prepare to launch a series of wines at some undetermined time.

“We just ordered a new set of machines that will really help us out,” Lee said. “Improved chromatography and mass spectrometry will take things to the next level. We’ve been toying with the idea of moving to Napa so that we can make our own Napa Valley wine.”

What does the future world of wine look like?

“There will always be wineries in the Napa Valley,” Lee said. “But places that are not so prestigious — like vineyards in the central valley — will probably not be around in 100 years.”

The numbers can be contentious, but we often read that 80 percent of the water used for agriculture and 14.5 percent of greenhouse gas emissions come from raising animals for meat and dairy, while 30 percent of all inhabitable land on Earth is devoted to livestock. So is synthetic food the answer to the world’s problems? According to the co-founder of Ava Winery, the answer is certain.

“In the future wine and nearly all other food will be made in giant vats,” Lee said. “This will be potentially much healthier for both the consumer and the planet. We are all witnessing the first steps into what is the future of food.”

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Originally published in the Napa Register, October 2016