By Lisa Van Loo

“If there’s a gene that tells you whether you like Brussels sprouts or not, then why can’t we use genetics to tell people whether they would like a certain wine?”

From fighting cancer to curating wine, meet the creators of Vinome

Daydreaming comes easy in a vineyard. Perhaps it’s the smooth pace of the environment, or the unique landscape, or the knowledge that the aging grapes hanging from those delicate vines will soon blend with other ingredients to become something else entirely.

No matter the reason, it’s rare that those daydreams intersect with science. Unless you’re a genetic counselor, hanging out with a couple other genetic counselors. Then, the intersection is almost, anecdotally speaking, inevitable.

“We started thinking,” Sara Riordan said of her and the two friends she was hiking with through that California vineyard. “If there’s a gene that tells you whether you like Brussels sprouts or not, and whether you like cilantro or not, then why can’t we use genetics to tell people whether they would like a certain wine?”

The trio of female scientists quickly learned that they could use genetics in that way. And, that no one else was doing it.

“Genetics can be fun,” Riordan said.

And so that daydream became a tangible idea. And that idea had legs, turning into a very real business endeavor once Riordan, Shannon Kieran and Elissa Levin sat down with Ronnie Andrews, a veteran of the clinical and molecular diagnostics industry.

Independent of these women, Andrews had been kicking around the same proposition in his head. They assembled a team, met up to brainstorm in Orange County and tossed ideas at a whiteboard and a cluster of oversized sticky notes.

They came away with Vinome, a blended name that pulls from wine’s nickname of “vino,” and folds in the fact that they planned to scrub the human genome to determine the preferences of wine enthusiasts and novices alike.

“I think Vinome is really a fun marriage of both science and wine,” Kieran said. “Vinome is that new, cutting edge way to integrate your most personal biological asset, your DNA, into the social and recreational enjoyment of wine.”

And while the marriage is easy- simply asking Vinome clients to provide a saliva sample for testing, the science behind it is complex. The founders, accomplished and forward-thinking executives in the field of genetics, weren’t interested in leaving any variables to chance.

So, they got to drinking wine. And others did the same, in a controlled environment designed to scientifically pull insights on preferences from the more than 500 subjects who participated in Vinome’s initial studies.

Beyond dozens of spent corks, the research relied on the analysis of 40 different genetic variants, along with smell and taste preferences from a survey with more than 100 questions, which ultimately crafted an algorithm for Vinome that would allow those scientific insights to be filtered out through eight distinct palate profiles.

It’s those primary and secondary profiles, playfully assigned names such as Vibrant Grove and Jam Dunk, that guide clients toward the flavors in wines they’ll enjoy the most, based on their DNA.

“Vinome is a unique wine experience that allows us to use the science of taste and combine that with a growing consumer desire to have great boutique wines,” Andrews said. “Our whole goal is to create an experience. Experience what it feels like to be in the moment with the wine, with the winemaker and the winery. And, really understand this is a rare opportunity.”

Not only is the experience rare because it incorporates DNA along with the client’s taste preferences, but because Vinome works with boutique wineries that don’t distribute to supermarket shelves. Vinome founders strategically chose to work with quaint, family wineries in an effort to showcase these hidden gems and introduce those wines to an audience that will appreciate their flavor.

Jennifer Dein, a Vinome client, experienced just that.

“Vinome has been a great opportunity to broaden our horizons and introduce us to new boutique wineries we’ve never tried,” Dein said.

Andrews knows there will be detractors. There always are, for everything. But the team recognizes that pioneers don’t go unchallenged. And they know their science is sound.

“It’s been vetted and validated and I’m very proud of that,” Andrews said. “We face criticism from folks who don’t really understand what we’re doing. We’re confident in who we are as scientists. And, we’re confident in what we’re trying to achieve.”


the contributor
Lisa has a contradictory, raging love affair with commas and short, emphatic sentences. She can’t help it. And, she’s not looking to change.
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