ILLUSTRATION BY MARTIN ELFMAN
The booming personal genomics industry, pioneered by companies such as 23andMe, enables any curious consumer to dig deep into his or her unique double helix. The data often focuses on heritage and health—but what if your DNA could factor into discovering the perfect bottle of wine for your palate?
That’s the premise behind the California-based start-up Vinome, which aims to help savvy sippers learn what role their genes may play in their preference for, say, an oaky chardonnay over a fruit-bomb zinfandel. “We offer new opportunities to expand your palate based on things that you might not know,” says founder and CEO Ronnie Andrews.
It’s not that we say, ‘OK, you’re going to like cab sauvs or pinot noirs.’ Some wines will span across multiple bins, depending on the flavors
In 2015, Andrews and his two cofounders decided to combine a shared love of wine and their collective expertise in genetics (high-ranking positions at industry leaders such as Roche Molecular Diagnostics and Thermo Fisher Scientific) into the venture. Vinome’s scientists analyzed 41 genetic variants related to taste across 541 subjects, each of whom rated about a dozen wines and also completed a 100-question survey about taste preferences. “We had plenty of people volunteering to come taste wine,” Andrews says.
This research allowed Vinome to examine differences in genes such as TAS2R38, a taste receptor that can detect bitterness. The company then devised a proprietary algorithm to determine a customer’s primary and secondary taste profiles across eight categories, or bins, with names like Secret Garden and Jam Dunk, utilizing a team of wine experts along the way. “We developed categories that are very specific to flavors,” explains Vinome cofounder and lead scientist Sara Riordan. “It’s not that we say, ‘OK, you’re going to like cab sauvs or pinot noirs.’ Some wines will span across multiple bins, depending on the flavors that are in them.”
The method includes more than just the algorithm. Customers fill out online surveys with questions derived from the original study that ask whether they like the smell of freshly cut grass, for example, or which cheeses they prefer, and the company pairs these answers with the DNA sequencing results to give each drinker his or her “Vinome.” (Customers can then, of course, browse the online wine store or join the wine club, with selections based on their results.)
While Vinome’s customer base continues to grow (it has already profiled about 3,000 customers), some scientists are skeptical that DNA can predict something as subjective and lifestyle-based as taste preference. And although Vinome has applied for a patent and has submitted its research to industry publications, the company stresses that this is all in the name of a good time.
“We’re inviting people to explore their tastes and help us learn more about the science as they go along,” Riordan says. “But I can’t understate that it is wine, and it is fun.”