WellVine Chocolates Embraces Upcycling


Grape marc, the solid waste left after pressing grapes into wine, represents the largest underutilized by-product from winemaking. WellVine Chocolates, LLC is upcycling this antioxidant-rich ingredient into a line of chocolates under the Vine to Bar brand and exploring opportunities to develop WellVine Chardonnay Marc as an ingredient. 

Behind the brands are Scott Forsberg, president of WellVine, and Ralph Jerome, the company’s chief innovation officer and a past head of innovation at Mars, Inc. The chocolate line includes four varieties of bars — dark chocolate, dark chocolate with almonds and Himalayan pink salt, dark chocolate with tart cherry and cocoa nibs, and chardonnay smoked salt and cocoa nibs — along with dark chocolate-coated almonds. The products are made with 100% pure cocoa butter, natural plant-based flavors and ingredients, and no palm oil or GMOs. 

Candy & Snack TODAY recently sat down with Forsberg and Jerome to better understand the potential of WellVine’s chardonnay marc both for its own product line and as a functional ingredient.

Candy & Snack TODAY: What is grape marc, and why did you choose to work specifically with chardonnay grapes?

Forsberg: The process of winemaking involves crushing ripe grapes into grape must. For white wine, the must is then pressed to separate the juice from the solids. Next, only the juice is fermented to produce wine. The grape solids that remain are called pomace, or marc. 

Initially we tested and evaluated eight different wine grape varieties, including both red and white grapes, for health effects, taste and aroma. Contrary to the popular belief that red grapes are healthiest, chardonnay grape marc consistently produced not only superior sensory characteristics but also the most potent health effects. This is likely due to both the fresh nature of chardonnay marc, the high levels of flavanols and the incredible diversity of its oligosaccharides. In fact, chardonnay marc is one of the most diverse food sources of oligosaccharides known. That said, we do have long term plans to develop other varieties.

Candy & Snack TODAY: What makes it a superfood?

Forsberg: One of the things that distinguishes white wine from red is that white wine grapes are not fermented before they are pressed. Red grapes undergo a process called maceration before pressing, in white wine only the juice is fermented. This means the grapes used in WellVine chardonnay marc are essentially fresh pressed fruit, made just hours after harvesting. They have all the goodness of fresh fruit, but with less sugar.

Because it is so fresh, it contains high levels of flavanols and other antioxidants, as well as nutrients including fiber and magnesium. Early science suggests several of these nutrients might help maintain a healthy gut and cardiovascular system — particularly flavan-3-ols like epicatechin — and a diverse array of oligosaccharides, which are known for potential prebiotic benefits. Research shows that adding more flavanols and fiber to your diet is a great way to help keep your body healthy.

Candy & Snack TODAY: Why is WellVine chardonnay marc unique?

Forsberg: Our WellVine chardonnay marc is sourced exclusively from the premium Coastal and Mountain vineyards of Jackson Family Wines in California and Oregon. It contains the entire grape — everything that comes out of the wine press (skin, pulp and seeds) minus the juice, which is made into wine. The fresh character of chardonnay grapes imparts a lightly sweet, fruity flavor that tempers the bitterness of the flavanols in the dark chocolate. We like to say it’s a win for palate and planet.

Candy & Snack TODAY: Grape marc has been available since people started making wine. When did WellVine start exploring its potential as a functional ingredient? 

Forsberg: Our founders — Barbara Banke from Jackson Family Wines, and Peggy Furth formerly of Chalk Hill — have been exploring the value of pressed wine grapes since 2009. They were convinced that freshly harvested, pressed wine grapes are an underutilized asset in the winemaking business and began the journey to discover how we might think about them differently.

The company initially experimented with selling flours, oils and baked goods as interesting culinary products under the WholeVine brand. However, we realized there was great potential in human health as well. During the past decade, in cooperation with experts and researchers from the USDA, University of California, Davis, University of Tennessee, Knoxville and Iowa State University, we expanded our knowledge of how to best capture the unique benefits of pressed chardonnay grapes and preserve chardonnay’s unique sensory and nutritional value. This culminated in the development of WellVine Chardonnay Marc, which was first introduced as an ingredient in Vine to Bar chocolate in late 2020.

Candy & Snack TODAY: Upcycling food is a trend right now. Why is this important to consumers and retailers?

Forsberg: There are a couple of trends in the food industry and with consumers that have really created momentum in the upcycling movement. One of these is simply the realization by consumers and brands that former practices are simply not sustainable. Another is the growing understanding of how our relationship with food has become increasingly unhealthy. Highly processed foods are often sweeter, more stable or cheaper to produce but at an impoverished nutritive value. Ironically, often the raw food material that is disposed of or composted has more nutritional value than the part that is processed.

Developing regenerative food systems, expanding local food supplies and upcycling do much more than help to conserve our natural resources; they are essential to securing a future with both a healthy and abundant food supply.

Candy & Snack TODAY: What was the product development like for Vine to Bar?

Jerome: When I heard the story and tasted the WellVine Chardonnay Marc, I knew something special would come from it. I brought a sample of the marc back to my personal lab, experimented with blending it with dark chocolate and brought it back to the team. The more we considered the health and flavor compatibility between the marc and dark chocolate, the more it made sense to move forward with product development. It was exciting to see an upcycled material enhance and give unique character to something as beloved as dark chocolate.

Candy & Snack TODAY: You seem to have a true passion for this project. Where does that come from?

Jerome: When I was very young, there were several famines around the world resulting in the deaths of millions of people. This made a huge impression on me. I loved food and I knew from an early age I’d spend my life doing something in the world of food, nutrition and sustainability. I started college as a plant science major, but midway through my first year I read the course description for food science that described the major as “guaranteeing a safe and wholesome food supply for humanity” and I knew that was my calling. I was also fortunate to have worked on cocoa supply chain sustainability, and decisions Mars made catalyzed the industry to take action to ensure a more mutually beneficial supply of cocoa for both people and planet. 

Candy & Snack TODAY: Are there unique considerations chocolate makers must understand when working with the WellVine ingredient? 

Jerome: That’s such a great question, and the answer is yes. WellVine Chardonnay Marc is a powder that requires delicate handling to preserve both the nutrition and the flavor, and the founders have been incredibly committed to protecting those elements, investing in equipment and product development processes to optimize the final product. We learned early on that gentle processing is required to preserve both the nutrition and the beautiful floral and fruity notes, and the team has been committed to real attention to detail in raw material handling. The other thing that we had to get right was the lovely “melt in the mouth” texture required for a premium chocolate. There was a lot of diligence put into milling of the marc and determining the optimal cocoa butter content for the chocolate to yield a creamy and luscious experience.

Candy & Snack TODAY: You talk a lot about using premium chocolate. Where is that sourced and how does it fit within your sustainability messaging?

Jerome: Our cacao is sourced primarily from West Africa and South America and is covered by the Cocoa Horizons Certification program for sustainability and social impact. We work directly with Barry Callebaut to produce the products, sharing its passion for sustainability and chocolate. I knew they would help us get it right. From sourcing of the Cocoa Horizons certified chocolate through the manufacturing, they have been supportive and a great partner in innovation.

Candy & Snack TODAY: What is the potential for WellVine Chardonnay Marc as an ingredient?

Forsberg: The combination of a food ingredient that is both good for you and that tastes good doesn’t come along very often. We see Wellvine as a superb way to increase the nutritional value of many foods, not just chocolate, while maintaining the kind of sensory experience that consumers demand. Foods that we have already developed or are developing include not only confections like chocolate but also baked goods, smoothies, condiments and sauces and beverages. We are also actively pursuing dietary supplements both independently and with partners. 

Later this year consumers will be able to enjoy a powdered mix of WellVine Chardonnay Marc and high-flavanol cacao for use in smoothies and drinks like juice and coffee. This supplement mix will deliver clinically significant levels of flavanols for heart and brain health, along with high levels of oligosaccharides for gut health. Other supplement combinations will follow as will other products.