By Paul Vigna
There is some kismet in that the co-founders of the San Francisco biotech company, which has done groundbreaking work in identifying the microbiome fingerprint of vineyard soil are part of families that have deep roots in wine.
Adrian Ferrero (MS in Economic Science) said his 93-year-old grandfather owns a vineyard and taught him how to “take care of the vineyard, make wine and enjoy/respect it.” The family of partner Alberto Acedo (a doctorate in Medicine Genomics) owns vineyards in Toro, Spain, and has been connected to the wine business for long time.
Both men have developed Biome Makers and its product called WineSeq, which uses sophisticated medical diagnostic technology to assess the soil and help predict the effects that the microbiome has on the quality and sensory properties of wine. Its pioneering work has earned it a WINnovation Award.
“When we approached the development of WineSeq, we realized that there was no reference of the communities of microorganisms living in the vineyards,” Ferrero said. “For that reason we started building the first Bio-Map of wine regions characterizing the microbiome fingerprint for different places around the world. Currently we have processed more than 3,000 samples coming from 18 different countries and we have a good representation of the microbial fingerprint of areas as Napa or Sonoma in California, and Ribera del Duero or Rioja in Spain.”
It was a dinner meeting with winemakers from Toro, one of Spain’s most respected wine regions, in the summer of 2014 that began giving traction to the idea of a more precise process of assessing the soil’s microbes. Some months later they drew the attention of Illumina Accelerator, a world-class accelerator for genomic-based startups promoted by the giant biotech Illumina, Inc., and began to develop WineSeq with five high-end wineries from California.
While the arrangement is fairly basic – clients gather the soil samples and provide some details on the plot being sourced and receive an analysis in four to six weeks and in sometimes as little as a week – the information being provided through the WineSeq Club is anything but simple, and it’s valuable as much to individuals managing the vineyard as to those finding the right notes in the cellar.
Ferrero: “Usually growers are more interested in microbiology impacting the plant: pathogens, nitrogen fixing bacteria, biocontrols, and plant growth promoters while winemakers are more interested in those species enhancing or risking the fermentation to better understand how to make more unique and genuine wines.”
Paco Cifuentes, a native of Madrid, operates as an importer and distributor of Spanish wines under the Whole Wine Trade brand in San Francisco. With a background in the biotech industry prior to transitioning to being a full-time distributor, he said he was seeking uniqueness in his portfolio when he met Ferrero and learned more about WineSeq. Currently, he and the company are working on a long-range project to map the vineyard soils of 12 different producers.
“After I listened to him, I immediately thought: My wines must have tons of microbial diversity compared to ‘industrially’ produced wines. And I was right,” he said. “The other question I wanted to answer objectively was related to ‘sustainability.’ I know that my producers used agricultural and winemaking techniques that were respectful with the environment. But can we have markers that unequivocally tells us that yes, these vineyards are being treated with respect?”
The problem with some of the current chemical testing to see whether vineyards follow organic standards, he said, is that they target something very specific. Yet some other chemical can be used, maybe one even more harmful, that does not have a test to detect it yet. “With WineSeq we can test markers that are downstream of those chemicals,” he noted. “No matter what the winemaker uses in the vineyard, they will show whether or not a specific microbial population, which is very sensitive to any artificial intervention, lives or not in the vineyard.”
With the information, Ferrero said, growers can promote more useful agricultural practices by applying fertilizers, treatments or amendments in a more efficient way. At the same time, winemakers can better understand the reason grapes coming from different blocks behave differently during fermentation, helping them segregate the block based in biological parameters.
Click here to read five success stories Biome Makers has documented.
Cifuentes doesn’t mind chiming in with the story that has improved his portfolio, which includes his direct-to-consumer line that can be found at sensewines.com. The data from WineSeq, he said, gives his company a better idea of which microorganisms become more or less present at different stages of the winemaking process, enhancing what ultimately fills every bottle.
“I see this as a plus for any wine collection,” he said. “I value as a positive quality feature when a wine gives me some notes when I start tasting it, different ones in the middle of it and keeps surprising me when I swallow it at the end. I do like predictable wines that are predictably all apple and only apple from beginning to end. But I do not think they are as profound and, hence, high quality, as wines that have plenty of different notes. This complexity that reflects the geography and the winemaking is what we have called ‘terroir’ for ages, and I believe that higher microbial diversity correlates with higher complexity and overall quality.”
Biome Makers Team