Wine is incredibly complicated, a mixture of thousands of chemical substances that somehow produce unique tastes, textures and aromas. What is it in grapes that gives some wines the scent of leather and others the flavor of grapefruit? For centuries, the alchemy of wine has been mysterious to the point of seeming magical.
Which brings us to U.S. Patent Application 20090181123:
A method of producing wine, comprising mixing at least two fermented grape juices, wherein at least one of said fermented grape juices is fermented by recombinant yeast transformed with a DNA sequence comprising a heterologous gene, wherein the expression of said heterologous gene causes the yeast to secrete a flavor-enhancing natural product.
While genetically modified yeasts are already creeping into wine production, they only do what wine yeasts have always done: turn sugar into alcohol. What Daniel La Caze of Rolling Hills, California, claims to have invented is yeast that does that, and much, much more. The yeast he envisions eats sugar and excretes not just alcohol, but flavor components that previously had to be produced on the vine, the “broad-range phenols, esters and certain acids” that give wine it’s flavor and character.
According to the patent application, being able to create flavor components in the winery, rather than the vineyard, will be a boon to the wine business.
Current methods employed by winemakers to improve the flavor characteristics of wine, include altering the grape cultivation and/or winemaking processes and choosing to mix/blend wines from different varietals. Although crude and somewhat inefficient, such techniques allow winemakers to produce wine with certain desired characteristics. Unfortunately, not all characteristics are easy to replicate year to year and sometimes require significant investment to produce.
Mr. La Caze envisions a world where genetically modified yeasts are blended to turn weak, thin, out-of-balance juice into deep, concentrated wine. This could be a great thing, another technological advance like temperature-controlled fermentation that lowers the risk of the wine business and improves the quality of low-priced wines. It could lead to new wine experiences the way flavor-infused spirits have led to new cocktails.
But it could also, theoretically and taken to the extreme, make possible “wine” comprised of nothing but water, sugar and yeast. If Mr. La Caze is correct, it could eventually be possible to fill a stainless steel vat with sugar water, toss in a mixture of genetically modified yeast and, in a few weeks, end up with a rich, oaky, ersatz Cabernet Sauvignon. Alter the yeast blend a little and it’s a GSM or floral Pinot Gris.
It sounds like something out of The Jetsons, I know. But according to U.S. Patent Application 20090181123, it may not be that far off.