Genetic testing is all the rage these days. Some tests can reveal serious health scenarios, such as if you're predisposed to cancer or Alzheimer's disease. Other tests purport to tell you how much Neanderthal DNA is still in your bloodstream. But can genetic screening also tell if you're predisposed to cabernet?
A group of doctors-turned-entrepreneurs started a company called Vinome to answer this question. Vinome, based in Healdsburg, Calif., is one of a handful of startups applying DNA analysis to discover what you'll like and dislike in food and drink. Consumers who sign up for Vinome fill out a survey inquiring into their general food and wine preferences, and mail in a saliva sample to Vinome's genetic testing firm.
A few weeks later, Vinome provides a picture-filled report with catchy turns of phrase about what your DNA says you'll enjoy. Maybe you didn't know that you were a "Jam Dunk" – someone who likes rich, jammy wines – or a "Bing is King," whose palate appreciates cherry and earthy flavors, or one of another six baskets. The reports finish with a brief rundown of the genes and their small variants, called alleles, that influence how different people perceive tastes. For instance, the SCNN1D gene with the CC allele indicates a person likely can tolerate higher alcohol without as much of a burning sensation than others do. Translation: You'll probably enjoy a big California zinfandel that's upward of 15 percent alcohol.
The company opened for business in August and has sold 1,800 wine preference tests at $110 apiece, signing up 500 people for its wine club. (The tech is advanced but the business model is old-fashioned.) "Now that we have shipped more than 4,000 bottles of wine with a greater than 97 percent positive predictive value (meaning that only 3 percent are returned or reported as bad), we've got really good power behind our ability to pick the right bottles for people." says Ron A. Andrews, Vinome's CEO and cofounder.
Andrews says he and some of his five co-founders – most with genetic science backgrounds – sketched out the idea while enjoying a glass of wine at an oncology conference. Andrews, who led genetic science at Thermo Scientific and founded a biotech venture capital firm in 2015, says they conducted trials with 500 people and identified 10,000 pieces of genetic data that affect taste perception. They trimmed that down to 19 genes and alleles by choosing ones that had appeared in multiple past scientific studies and then compared them with how trial participants answered 100 food and wine questions: Do you like your coffee black? Do you love compote with your cheese? From all this data, they created eight wine flavor profiles with help from consulting winemakers including Nils Venge and Ed Zbragia. Current customers answer just 12 questions and an algorithm crunches the answers and gene data. "It's fun and it actually works," says Andrews.
That depends on whom you ask.
"My immediate reaction is to roll my eyes," says Marion Nestle, a professor of nutrition, food studies and public health at New York University. "Genetics certainly influences taste – some people hate bitter tastes while others love them. Some people think cilantro is delicious, others think it tastes like soap. But much of taste in food is learned... genetics doesn't seem like a good reason not to like a food."
Others are more skeptical. "Such tests are bogus, without any science to back them up," says Eric Topol, Scripps Research Institute geneticist and outspoken critic of commercialized DNA tests.
Vinome's Andrews acknowledges DNA alone doesn't indicate much. "We didn't just use genetics or we wouldn't have a product. The gene panel and preference survey tells people how the kind of things they're predisposed to actually manifest as their preferences. The two of those things clearly give us a lot of statistical power."
Liz Thach, a professor of wine and management at Sonoma State University, has published research showing that people do form distinct groups of wine preferences based on natural characteristics including how many taste buds they have and how much saliva their mouth produces. She's found a quarter of people find white wines insipid and want bold reds, while a quarter are basically the opposite. The rest fall in the middle. And everyone can learn to appreciate and enjoy other tastes, she emphasizes.
About Vinome, Thach says, "I definitely think there's some credence to it and, more importantly, a unique marketing hook for the consumer."
Indeed, Vinome's landed on an angle that makes it stand out in the competitive niche of wine clubs, where profit margins are double those of sales through traditional distribution, according to data published in Wine Business Monthly. It's found healthy demand from millennials, whose tendency to self-quantify means they're particularly open to DNA testing. Other customers are drawn to Vinome's lineup of small-production, West Coast wineries such as Miner and Stonestreet.
This is likely just the start. Vinome has patented its method of using genetic preferences for anything involving smell and taste, says Andrews. Expect to see kits for beer, cocktails and maybe for perfume to attract the mate you want. At the moment, the focus is on growth in wine and gathering more data to improve the taste-matching algorithms. "It's just like Netflix or Spotify," he says.
Now if only someone would figure out a way to match the movie or music to the wine, they'd be on to something.
ABOUT THE WRITER
Brendan Coffey is a Boston-based writer who has written on business, tech and lifestyle for Forbes, Fortune, Businessweek, Esquire and dozens of other outlets.