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March 1, 2024

A fascinating chronicle of vinous crimes

A new book lifts the lid on a history of deceit and criminality in the wine world.

By Stuart Walton

Stuart Walton reviews Vintage Crime: A Short History of Wine Fraud by Rebecca Gibb MW.

Questions of authenticity loom large when it comes to eating and drinking. How do we know that what we are consuming is what it says it is? Traceability, provenance, appellations of origin have all played a part in ensuring that food and drink products are the real thing—examined, certified, tasted, and labeled as such—so that end users can have confidence that what they are buying is genuine. Even so, a large proportion of the unstated contract between producer and consumer relies on trust.

Wine, in particular, has always been subject to the carelessness, corner-cutting, and manipulation of unscrupulous producers, retailers, and dealers at auction. Inherently a very simple product, it has been treated throughout history to various dishonest practices to make it more palatable, to stretch it during lean times, and to maximize the profit to be had from the increasing value it acquires with age and rarity. It all depends on what the consumer believes is in the bottle, and whether, as folk wisdom has it, what you don’t know can’t hurt you.

Early on in this entertaining history of wine fraud, Rebecca Gibb MW quotes a Copenhagen law professor, Lars Holmberg, saying that “as long as counterfeit wine goes undetected, the victims (excluding the honest wine producers who may lose market share to the false wines) may not really be victimised at all.” This contention is at least worth arguing. If we thought we were drinking a 1995 Bordeaux first growth, commended it rapturously as such, and then discovered that we had actually been served the 1999, to what extent does it matter? What if it had been a Cabernet/Merlot blend from the Rutherford Benchlands? What if it turned out it was rebottled bulk-produced Chianti? The subsequent knowledge that not all was as it seemed provokes indignation to the precise degree of severity of the deception. And deception is the key. The keen palate of one who spots the discrepancy might be a cause for professional pride, but we are still left with the exasperation that somebody has tried to pull the wool over our eyes.

Vintage Crime splits its focus between passing-off frauds and the often grislier business of outright adulteration. Beginning with the additives with which wine was treated in classical Rome, and journeying through the artful blending practices among European winemakers during the phylloxera crisis and through other short vintages, the diethylene glycol scandal of the 1980s, and the various deceptions perpetrated by those who trade in, and profit massively from, sales of venerable old bottles and collectors’ items, Gibb writes with gusto and good narrative momentum.

The simplest adulterant of all is water, an indispensable aspect of the serving of wine in the classical world, although a key element of its etiquette was that it was the drinker’s prerogative to add it. Tavern keepers who diluted their wine behind the scenes before selling it were an affront to honest dealing, a point of principle that already prepared the ground for relations between consumers and providers in the time to come.

Not all additives were as innocent as water, for all that there was no intent to deceive. The only gradually understood issue of lead contamination was a disaster with no villains. Lead was in the plumbing system, in fermentation vessels and their lids, and in the crystal glassware on the grandest tables. The numerous cases of lead-related gout from drinking contaminated Port helped seal that wine’s disproportionate association with the ghastly condition. It is likely that Beethoven suffered from cumulative lead poisoning, his horrendous diurnal pain only exacerbated by the quantities of wine he drank in quest of relief from it.

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Wine fraud: Adulteration as standard

By the 19th century, the adulteration of wine was so extensive that it was a grimly accepted truism. When the Veneerings’ sepulchral butler in Our Mutual Friend (1865) asks a guest if he would care for a drop of Chablis—adding without pause that he assuredly wouldn’t if he knew what was in it—Dickens plays satirically on the widespread conviction that winemakers and importers were synonymous with sharp practice. A glass of wine was as axiomatically suspect as Bismarck’s sausage: It was best not to know what was in it. The modification of red Burgundy with the addition of wines from the Rhône, Languedoc, and Algeria, to bring up its color and give it the body that underpowered Pinot Noir lacked, was enough of an orthodoxy that, as Gibb shows, it affected tastes in Burgundy well into the late 20th century. If another miserable summer on the Côte d’Or had delivered another crop of thin cuvées not much past rosé, simply adjust the color with imported Norwegian blueberries.

In 1874, British scientist Arthur Hill Hassall wrote an explosive letter to The Times, in which he revealed the results of the chemical analysis he had conducted on a random sample of wines. Some contained gypsum (plaster of Paris); two of them contained no actual wine at all. At the inception of the appellation system in France in the 1930s, convictions for fraud followed the analysis of wines that might be boosted with Algerian red, blackcurrant juice, sodium metabisulfite, and beef blood. Not until the era of molecular gastronomy would that sort of recipe be respectable.

The nadir was reached with exposure of the use of diethylene glycol in the Austrian wine industry in 1985, and the methanol scandal of 1986 in Italy, which cost two dozen consumers’ lives. It was only when a winemaker in Austria attempted to claim back the sales tax on his bulk glycol purchases that the practice was detected. It had flourished on the back of a complex system of bribery, a network of suborned officials rewarded for turning their collective blind eye with, among other inducements, lavish banquets, hunting weekends, and a supply of free wine.

Lessons in wine fraud from the Kurniawan scandal

In the contemporary era, Gibb turns her attention to the lucrative business of wine speculation, and the profits from trading in antique vintages. The specialist wine community has long enjoyed being regaled at gargantuan gastronomic occasions with classic wines from decades and centuries gone by, the prelude to auction sales that generate fantastical revenues for speculators and auctioneers alike. It is an integral aspect of such occasions that the wines are not merely being subjected to the best tasting note one can write under the influence of 30 units of century-old alcohol, but that the expertise of professional valuers and assessors helps authenticate the bottles. If the cork seems old and the label looks right, who is otherwise to say whether this is indeed what 1895 Lafite ought to taste like? Experience counts, naturally, and most of us have some seasoned idea of what to expect, but as the late Michael Broadbent MW put it in a classic reference work, a sight of the label is worth 50 years’ experience.

For the time being, the undoubted champion of the fraud business is Zhen Wang Huang, better known as Rudy Kurniawan, a wildly plausible Indonesian collector whose generosity and extensive knowledge became legendary in the 2000s. Once described as possessing the greatest personal wine cellar on earth, he was also a bullish trader in rare and collectable vintages. The first inkling of suspicion began to crystallize when Laurent Ponsot of Morey-St-Denis noticed that Kurniawan was offering for sale old vintages of Clos St-Denis made many years before the estate had began bottling one. The investigation around Kurniawan’s activities eventually uncovered a home-bottling and labeling operation of almost insulting simplicity, while chemical analysis of the wines revealed the ingenious formula that only somebody with a true understanding of wine could concoct. The “1945 Mouton Rothschild” was half Cos d’Estournel, one quarter Château Palmer, and one quarter California Cabernet, a whole Judgment of Paris in one doctored bottle.

Kurniawan was handed an arguably excessive ten-year prison sentence for his efforts, the first custodial penalty for wine fraud in US legal history. If his deceptions can be deplored, Kurniawan nonetheless served a useful purpose in highlighting the self-serving credulity that drives reckless markets (in any commodity) quite as much as the wisdom of experts and the ingenuity of investors. His legacy may well be the ritual smashing that now routinely follows the consumption of old and rare wines in restaurants and tastings around the world, to guard against the elderly bottles being refilled with alien contents. Otherwise, as the Romans advised, if you are an emptor with money to burn, best caveat.

Vintage Crime:
A Short History
of Wine Fraud

Rebecca Gibb MW

Published by University of California Press

220 pages; $29.95 / £25

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