Oliver Styles has a brilliant reminder of how even experienced wine lovers are led around by the nose by branding. The occasion for his take down is the flurry of interest in new companies making synthetic, knock-off wines in the lab by reverse engineering iconic wines that most people can’t afford.
Some people in the wine world are all atwitter about the possibility of purchasing for a few dollars a replica of, for example, Lafite-Rothschild, the iconic 1st growth Bordeaux selling for over $800 per bottle upon release. Of course it won’t be identical to Lafite but the lab wizards expect to make something that kinda sorta tastes like it. (Allegedly they are working on a knock off of Dom Perignon.)
But Styles points out what should be obvious though I haven’t seen anyone make the point until now. Writing about another iconic, expensive wine from Bordeaux, Yquem, he laments:
The real tragedy – as is the real tragedy behind all wine forgery – is that the lookalikes already exist. Yquem is not the only vineyard in Sauternes. In fact, Sauternes isn’t the only sweet appellation in Bordeaux. Want a knock-off Yquem? Get yourself to Sainte-Croix-du-Mont. It’s good and reasonably cheap and tastes enough like Yquem. Sure, it’s not Yquem, but if you really, really want Yquem, go buy Yquem.
This is true of all the famous, over-priced icons that wine lovers long for but can’t afford. There are wines from the same region that are very similar at a fraction of the cost. Of course, in most cases, they will not be identical to the original. But neither are the synthetic knock-offs.
The only difference between the similar-but-not-quite-as-distinctive alternative and the synthetic, lab-produced knock-off is that the latter will claim to be a knock-off of the brand. That is what generates the excitement.
As Styles writes:
What has happened is that hype and concentrated wealth have combined to produce wines that are an apogee, wines that everyone talks about and then, through the envy/ostentation/narcissism/sycophancy vortex that is social media, and the headline-obsessed real media, we get a concentration of paradigms. Everything else doesn’t register.
Consumers don’t care what the wine tastes like; they want association with the brand and the selfie to prove their connection.
The point is we don’t need “knock off” wines. We already have them, more of them than we can possibly drink, often made from the same grapes and using techniques similar to those used to produce the icons.
The only reason replica wines would be interesting is if they could succeed in producing exact duplicates indistinguishable from the original at much lower cost. To my mind that would ruin part of the romance of wine but at least it would be a remarkable technological feat and make the most remarkable taste sensations available to a much wider audience. But the producers of replica wines are far from accomplishing that.
Thus far they’re producing something we don’t need preying on consumers who don’t realize they’re buying a label, not a wine.