Frankenwines: mostly ’armless but have they got legs?

The next print edition of Drinks Retailing News includes a fascinating in-depth look at the concept of so-called Frankenwines. Their makers use laboratory analysis of well-known brands to establish a flavour and aroma profile and then reverse engineer those characteristics into the wine they make from their own-grown fruit.

The result is wines that mimic the profile of an expensive wine at significantly lower cost to consumers.

Ari Walker’s Colorado-based Integrated Beverage Group is leading the charge with its Replica wines which are cheekily described by the company as “master forgeries” though legal experts interviewed by DRN’s Andrew Don suggest they’ll fall on the right side of the law on intellectual property as things as stand because the wines he makes only aim to ape the taste of their target wines, which can’t be protected, rather than passing themselves off as the real thing by borrowing elements of brand names or packaging.

Whether Replica can make a dent commercially could prove to be the bigger issue, in the UK at least.

With its focus so far on the US, its range is tilted towards Xeroxes of cult-ish California brands, such as Rombauer and The Prisoner, names which will mean nothing to most British consumers and which produce wines whose retail prices would be out of reach for many even if they had heard of them.

A bottle of The Prisoner Red sells for £53 in Hedonism Wines in London and Wine Searcher lists no UK stockist for Rombauer Chardonnay, for example. With no market for such wines, is there any point in a drinkalike?

Kiti Soininen of market research firm Mintel told Andrew for his feature article that there could be a market for such replicas because seven out of 10 consumers don’t want to pay over £10 for a bottle of wine and are more motivated by things like their favourite brands and favourite grapes than “story-telling”.

But therein, I would argue lies the problem, because for most of those seven out of 10, favourite brand means things like Barefoot, Blossom Hill, Echo Falls and Hardys, if it means anything at all. And if your favourite brand only costs six, seven or eight quid, taking duty, transportation and VAT into account, what kind of significant saving could a replica realistically offer? Even halving the price of a £53 bottle of the Prisoner wouldn’t bring those people into the replica game.

That’s clearly not where Walker’s aiming anyway, but for people edging over the £10 price mark, and especially for those who head into the stratosphere of genuinely premium, prestige, cult and collectible wines, the story becomes everything, as a zillion brand owners have been only too chuffed to tell the trade in recent years, even when they don’t have much of a story to tell.

But where they do, the “story” is what connects higher spending wine drinkers to the producer and evokes the spirit of the place it was made or the personality of the people who made it, whether it’s a French family going back six generations, or a hippie winemaker in rural Spain walking a tightrope of minimal intervention, or a San Francisco tech tycoon who invests a fortune in creating a cult around pop art packaging and their own penchant for tie-dye waistcoats and handlebar moustaches.

Essentially, what we really mean when we talk about the story of a wine is its soul. And if you can afford wine at 50 quid a pop in the first place wouldn’t you just want to buy the real thing?

Read Andrew Don on Franenwines in the August 10 issue of Drinks Retailing News.

Related articles: