Monster Mash: Replica Wines heading to the UK

Imagine you could buy the Mona Lisa for half price. Not the real thing, but a fake that could even fool the experts. Leonardo da Vinci’s masterpiece would still be beyond most of our pockets. Now translate the idea across to wine. Say you could forge some of the world’s best wines, market them under your own label, avoid legal censure and knock them out to punters at a price they could afford. Why wouldn’t you?

Meet Ari Walker, chief executive of Integrated Beverage Group, whose Replica Wine fulfils just that. Walker insists Replica is “real wine, artisan-crafted by a Master Sommelier”. It is, in truth, a bit more complex and clever than that. 

The Times described the wines as “cloned Frankenwines” that “fool even experts”. Walker steers clear of such sensationalist descriptions, but he probably revels in them, such has been the media exposure both on his home turf in the US and overseas. 

Replica is wine that has been reverse-engineered, reproducing existing top-quality types – as near as damn it – using its laboratory to “analyse the original wine to a parts-per-billion level”, identifying the most prominent notes, says Walker.

“Then we craft the wine that will get us close to that original,” he tells DRN. “We don’t make duplicates – nobody can. But we get close enough that more people, including professionals, won’t notice a difference. And even if they can notice a difference, our goal is to be close enough that they can’t pass up a 50% price difference.”

Replica’s website calls the wines “master forgeries” but Walker veers from the “Frankenwines” image. “We grow our grapes on grafted vines just as virtually every fine wine vineyard in western Europe and the US is grafted.”

He points out that the business’s chief wine officer is Brett Zimmerman, one of fewer than 250 Master Sommeliers in the world. “The extent that our winemaking is different is due to the fact that we use science to guide the winemaking process,” Walker says. “By allowing the science to guide key winemaking decisions relating to flavour and aroma, we are able to deliver the precise flavours British customers are seeking at about half the price of our competitors.”

It seems to be working. Replica wines are sold in 49 US states, in Canada and Puerto Rico as Pickpocket, Knockoff, Misbehaved,
Just Right, Retrofit and Label Envy, selling in their home market for $15-$20 (£11-£15).

The clue is in the names. The wines do not claim to be what they are not. But the wines they have sought to replicate are cleverly alluded to in marketing across social media and other channels.

One of Replica’s tweets says, for example: “Love [California wine producer] Rombauer, but hate the price? We have something you and your wallet will love – Retrofit”.

A Business Insider tweet, which Replica retweeted, says: “Can people tell the difference between fake wine and real wine?” The accompanying photograph features pictures of replicated wines, including Constellation-owned California brand The Prisoner, next to Replica’s Pickpocket.

The legals

So how certain is Walker that Replica will not find itself on the end of intellectual property (IP) infringement litigation? He says: “We craft great artisan wine that costs about half what our competitors charge for remarkably similar flavours. This is the glory of the free market. The consumer wins.”

Ben Evans, senior associate at legal firm Blake Morgan, says that where producers and retailers need to be careful is in making sure the public are in no doubt about what they are buying.

“Trying to link a replica to the real thing, either through a name or a label design, could be subject to legal challenges through passing off or infringement proceedings,” he says.

They also need to be aware of Geographical Indications and if producers decide to try their hand at “cloning” wines that are protected – such as Champagne or Cava – it is likely to be challenged, says Evans. 

“However, there’s no evidence this is the case, and the wines currently being sold are very clear about their laboratory origin,” he adds. “That means the question for consumers is whether or not they can stomach picking a ‘cloned’ wine over the real thing, even if they’re able to save a significant sum of money.”

Lucy Harrold, a specialist IP consultant solicitor for Keystone Law, agrees that Replica’s wines appear to have been carefully developed from a branding perspective to avoid infringing the rights of the original wines.

“In these situations it is always a question of not getting too close to the original in terms of the look of the packaging or the brand name. If the labels are substantially the same that could be a copyright infringement in the UK. If the names are identical or confusingly similar to the original brands, that could amount to a registered trademark infringement.”

Replica Wine would have to be careful in its use of the trademarks in any comparison lists or comparative advertising, which must only be descriptive or it might be free-riding off the brand, which would be impermissible under the Misleading & Comparative Advertising Directive, she says. “Reverse engineering the taste is probably not an IP infringement and there would only be passing off if consumers were confused about the origin of what they were buying.” 

Bound for Britain

Walker says talks are underway to bring Replica to Britain. Will the UK be receptive? “Great wine [and he clearly ascribes “great” to Replica] does not have boundaries,” he says. “When we bring Replica to the UK we will ensure the brand reflects the British population’s tastes and preferences while offering the same significant savings for the consumer and better margins for retailers. Therefore, we are confident it would be well received,” he says.

Replica’s wines provide all the taste, body, aroma and enjoyment of labels costing twice as much, he argues. “Where our wine is different is where it starts. First, we ask ourselves if consumers like the original and are they buying it? We don’t want to model a replica of something nobody will want to drink. 

“Second, is it genuinely a good wine? Again, we don’t want to replicate something that we wouldn’t drink ourselves and want to share with friends. And lastly, using our process, can we replicate it in a manner that will allow consumers to save money? 

“We offer off-licences another opportunity – stronger margins. We’re making wines designed to sell at about half the price of the original. However, it’s ultimately the off-licence owners’ call as to what to charge.”

DRN suggests traditionalists will baulk at what he is doing. “Look, we are trying to democratise the great wine experience,” he says. “Traditionalists don’t like that very much because they feel that their vaunted place as wine aficionados is somehow threatened by the Replica model.

“We make great wines, and we don’t take ourselves too seriously. Our names are accessible and hard to forget.” 

TRADE VERDICT

Jonathan Kleeman, wine buyer and general manager for Twisted Cellar, a new store in Bishop’s Stortford, Hertfordshire, says: “The guys at Replica talk a lot about brands but, for a lot of quality wines, brand is not that important when you are only a small family in Burgundy.”

Sid Ali, managing director of Nasco Retail, which has four convenience stores in Aberdeenshire with a strong focus on alcohol, believes purists will always object.

“You always get that niche market that will say, ‘oh, you’re wearing a fake Rolex’. Well, it tells the time, so what’s the difference? If you can get the wine to taste as good, you know what – does it matter? It will bring fine wines to a bigger audience and you might actually find that the proper [original] will go up in value because there will be a bigger demand for it. Personally, I’m all for it.”

Hal Wilson, managing director of Cambridge Wine Merchants, is “fairly open-minded” about Replica. “I think it’s an interesting niche,” he says.

However, he adds that if he was a brand owner who had invested in his wines, he would be worried if another business decided to replicate it.

Wilson believes Replica has been “very clever” about its marketing. “This is cocking a snook at Californian producers who are charging too much for their full-bodied wine and there’s quite a bit of that going on.”

David Richardson, regulatory and commercial affairs director at the Wine & Spirit Trade Association, points out there is a certain amount of laboratory intervention in all wines, with the means to adjust aspects such as acidity, tannin and sugar content.

“They [Replica] are not saying it’s the real thing. They are saying it’s authentically unlike the real thing, so it’s almost got an authenticity of its own. So is there a market for it? Is it a curiosity? You taste it to have a bit of fun but are you going to buy a case of it? I don’t know. 

“I suspect given the consumer at that end of the market is more demanding, they might be interested in it as a curiosity but that’s not going to stop them buying the real thing.”

Replica Wine and its ilk could carve out an interesting niche in the UK. Kiti Soininen, category director, UK food and drink research, at Mintel, believes Replica has potential to win over many wine drinkers if it can significantly undercut popular brands on price.

Mintel research shows that 71% of wine buyers say they would not want to pay more than £10 for wine they drink at home.

Also working in Replica’s favour is that tangible factors matter more to UK wine drinkers than “story-telling”. Soininen says “favourite brand” is the top factor driving wine choice, with “high-quality”, “favourite grapes”, “intense” and “unique flavour” also high on the list. 

“Replica’s concept centres on replicating the flavour profile of popular wines, which should tick many of these boxes,” says Soininen.

Transparency is, however, likely to be key in securing goodwill. Perhaps the closest current comparison to Replica’s concept comes from private label. 

Here Aldi and Lidl have made their mark by offering products under bespoke brand names across much of their offering, rather than carrying the retailer brand in their ranges, such as Aldi’s Harvest Morn in breakfast cereals or Lidl’s Lupilu baby range. “The same is a key part of their alcoholic drinks offering,” Soininen says.

“However, while people veer towards branded drinks for gifting and special occasions, only half prefer brands for a drink with a meal at home, half either preferring own-label or having no preference. This lack of loyalty to brands suggests a sizeable potential audience also for Replica’s products on casual occasions.”

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