Imagine a wine bar with a list of wines by the glass like this:
Chateau Petrus 1982
La Tache 1990
Brunello di Montalcino, Biondi Santi, 1997
Batard Montrachet, Domaine Leflaive, 1995
Kosta Browne Pinot Noir Russian RiverValley 2004
Kistler Chardonnay, Dutton Ranch, 2005
Caymus Cabernet, Special Selection, 2002
Guigal Cote Rotie, La Landonne, 2003
Chateauneuf du Pape, Chateau de Beaucastel 1989
Grange Hermitage, 2002
Chateau Musar, 1999
Now imagine that the most expensive glass from the above is only $18.00. And we’re not talking about a microscopic drop, we’re talking about a full 6 ounce serving.
Too good to be true? Ask the folks who have been lucky enough to get a seat at the hottest wine bar in the country, perhaps the world, Metamorphosis 88 in Santa Monica, California.
There is a catch, however. It’s posted in the disclaimer at the top of the wine list for all to see:
To our valued customers: We invite you to try any and all of the wines listed below but be advised that they are not the wines from the actual winery. They are our specially blended versions of these famous wines made from other wines and do not contain any of the actual wines listed. We think you would be hard-pressed to tell the difference between the original and our specially blended versions, however.
In other words, these wines are knockoffs.
Like the perfumes you see on mall store shelves or magazine ads that promise a scent indistinguishable from, but at prices only a fraction of the real thing, Metamorphosis 88 is doing the same thing with famous wines.
The fact that these wines are not the real thing hasn’t seemed to phase the overflow crowds who have been flocking to the Main Street entrance of this wine bar since April 1 of this year. “I’m not an wine connoisseur by any means,” says frequent customer Jim Starkey, “but I know what I like and these wines are good. Better than the stuff I buy at the store, that’s for sure.”
Euell Owen, another regular, describes himself as an avid collector and experienced taster. “These wines are amazing. I’ve had the good fortune to taste a number of the original, real wines and frankly, I’m not so sure I could tell the difference in a blind tasting between what they serve and the originals. These are dead-ringers for the real thing.”
Metamorphosis 88 is the brainchild of a Korean couple, Hyun Jin-heon and Kim Sam Soon (note: in Korean culture, the surname is given first, unlike Western culture). Following is an interview I conducted with this very gracious and elegant pair, aided by our interpreter, Henry Kim:
Me: What gave you the idea behind Metamorphosis?
Jin-heon: My father was an avid wine collector. Growing up in Seoul, I had the fortune of trying many of the world’s finest wines. When I found out how much they cost I was shocked. I thought it was very unfortunate that most people could not afford to try such wonderful wines. It was Sam Soon who came up with the idea to add ingredients to a wine to alter the flavor. She’s the genius! (laughs)
Sam Soon: I had never tasted wine before I met Sam Shik – uh, I mean Jin-heon [editor’s note: Jin-heon’s nickname is Sam Shik]. When he introduced me to wine I was fascinated by how good they tasted and how they were so different from each other. One day I cooked dinner for Jin-heon and bought a bottle of wine from the store in my neighborhood. It was awful! I had assumed all wines were as good as the ones I had with Jin-heon but he told me that the ones we drank were very rare and expensive.
Me: And you didn’t like that idea?
Sam Soon: Not at all! I was grateful to be introduced to such good wine from Jin-heon and his family and wanted to share this with other people. But not when it cost so much money.
Jin-heon: Sam Soon is an excellent cook. She said to me, why can’t you mix other things into the wine to make it taste better? I looked at her and thought, why not? That’s something I had never thought about. Once she gets started on something, she doesn’t stop. She started buying lots of cheap bottles and then experimented with them.
Sam Soon: Wine has all sorts of tastes. Fruits, vegetables, butter, smoke, stones, plus some have a lot of acid or tannin and many other things. I thought I could duplicate these flavors in the wine so that’s what I tried to do. One night I told Jin-heon that the bottle we had just drunk would be the one I would copy as my first experiment.
Jin-heon: And she did it! She has an incredible memory for tastes and scents. She wouldn’t let me try anything until she thought she had done it right. One day she gave me a sample glass of a wine and asked me to try it. I was amazed. It tasted just like the wine we had drank that night.
Me: Which was..?
Jin-heon: A 1996 Corton Charlemagne from Louis Jadot. She had copied the fruit, the minerals, the whole taste of the wine and even the texture.
Sam Soon: He kept asking me if I had bought a bottle of this somewhere and was trying to fool him. I kept saying no, and he kept saying I must have. A bottle like that would be more than a week’s wages for me! Maybe even a month. How could I afford that?
Me: And then your idea blossomed from there?
Jin-heon: Yes it did. Sam Soon kept experimenting and practicing with different wines and got better and better.
Me: How do you do this? What kind of ingredients do you use?
Sam Soon: (laughs) Well I am afraid I cannot tell you too much because the recipes are my secret. But I can tell you I start with the original wine and taste it very carefully. Then I buy the starter, or base wine that I think will be able to be turned into a duplicate of the real wine.
Me: An expensive starter wine?
Sam Soon: No, not at all. Most of them cost less than $5 a bottle. I make sure to use a wine that is made in large amounts so I can buy enough for our wine bar. Then I experiment by adding ingredients that I think will make my base wine taste like the target wine. It is a trial and error process but I’ve gotten pretty good at it. You just need to add a little, little bit of whatever ingredient is needed.
Jin-heon: Most of the time just a little. Not always. Remember all that Hawaiian Punch you had to add to make those Australian shiraz wines? Or how you had to leave those oak chips overnight in that wine to make California chardonnay? Oops, I guess I said too much.
Me: And so you just mix and match some ingredients? Like how do you do it? Wouldn’t people be able to tell there are pieces of something floating around in the wine?
Sam Soon: I only add the essence of something. For example, I will stir the wine a few times with a peel, or a slice of fruit or vegetable. I also use some wine enhancers to get the desired taste when I am copying an older wine like a 1982 Bordeaux.
Me: What sort of wine enhancer?
Sam Soon: I use things like a Clef Du Vin. I also use a Vinturi and sometimes a Catania.
Me: Those things work?
Sam Soon: (just smiles)
Jin-heon: We also found out that some things made for hi-fi or audio systems also have an effect on the wine, like the Brilliant Pebbles and Clever Little Clock. Let’s see, there is also the Hallograph Soundfield Optimizer and the True Tone Duplex Cover..
Me: Uh, Jin-heon, your wife is giving you a look.. (she is glaring at him with her finger over her lips).
Jin-heon: Oh, uh, I guess I’ve said too much already. But you get the idea.
Me: And so your specialty is picking very highly rated wines for your wine bar, Sam Soon figures out how to duplicate them, and you put them on your list?
Sam Soon: That’s right, and we don’t charge a lot of money for them so that allows everyone to try them.
Me: Given how crowded your bar is every night, I guess people must like it.
Jin-heon: Satisfaction guaranteed! We have people all the time who will bring in their own bottle of wine to compare to what Sam Soon does and they are shocked.
Sam Soon: It doesn’t always taste the same because even two bottles of the same wine will not taste the same, but it has the same character. You could not tell that the glass we pour is a different wine from the original that they bring in.
Me: Rumor has it that Gary Vaynerchuck, the Wine Library TV guy, is going to do a blind comparison tasting on his video show to see if he can tell which wine is the real thing and which one is from Sam Soon. Any truth to this?
Jin-heon: (shrugs and smiles). Can’t say.
Me: Have you received any flak from the actual wineries who make the original wines that you are copying?
Jin-heon: Oh, yes. We have received various notices from their lawyers but we point to our menu disclaimer which says very clearly that these wines are not the originals and do not contain any of the original wines in them.
Sam Soon: It is no different than when you buy generic drugs or the store brand of something. The bottle says “compare this to so-and-so” and you can see it has the same ingredient as the name brand drug but costs much less. We all start with the same base ingredient, which is grapes, and then go from there.
Me: I guess you have a point, there. Well, thank you very much for allowing me this interview today. I wish you much success.
Jin-heon: You are most welcome.
Sam Soon: Yes, thank you for your well-wishes.
Jin-heon and Sam Soon are a class act, and they make a cute couple, as well. I imagine it’s only a short matter of time before their idea spawns numerous imitators, but for now it seems like they’re the only game in town. And putting together quite a winning record, I might add.