https://www.wired.com/story/your-nex...ght-be-a-fake/

05.30.18

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.

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