Unraveling the Intriguing Saga of Wine Crimes

By | 2 March 2024

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 has historically subjected to various deceitful practices by unscrupulous producers, retailers, and auction dealers who seeks to improve its taste, extend its longevity during scarce periods, and maximize profit from its growing value with age and rarity. Everything hinges on what the consumer thinks is in the bottle and whether what they don’t know would harm them.

Rebecca Gibb MW, in her captivating chronicle of wine fraud, cites Copenhagen law professor Lars Holmberg who opines that, until counterfeit wine is identified, the victims (apart from the legitimate wine producers who might lose market share to the fake wines) may not necessarily be victimized at all. This assertion is up for debate. For instance, if we thought we were enjoying a 1995 Bordeaux first growth, lavishly praising it, but later learned that we were actually served the 1999 vintage, how significant is it? What if it was a blend of Cabernet/Merlot from Rutherford Benchlands? What if it was discovered to be repackaged mass-produced Chianti? The realization that things were not as they appeared incites irritation proportional to the gravity of the fraud. Deception remains the core issue. Though the sharp palate of a person who picks up on the difference might take pride in their discernment, the frustration that someone has attempted to deceive us remains.

Vintage Crime divides its attention between passing-off frauds and the often more gruesome matter of outright adulteration. Gibb writes with energy and narrative drive, starting from ancient Rome, where wine was first rigged with additives, exploring artful blending strategies of European winemakers during the phylloxera crisis and other short harvests, the diethylene glycol scandal in the 1980s, to various deceits by those profiting exorbitantly from selling aged bottles and collector’s items.

The classical world served wine with water as an integral part. But contrary to established protocols, some tavern owners would dilute their wine before sale, thereby setting the tone for future consumer-seller relationships.

Not every additive was harmless even though it was used unintentionally. The deadly problem of lead contamination happened without any malevolent intentions. It was present in the plumbing system, fermentation containers and their covers, and even in the crystal glassware used by the elite. Drinking contaminated Port led to several cases of gout related to lead. Beethoven, most likely, fell a victim to lead poisoning, and his agonizing daily pain would only increase with the amount of wine he drank in hopes of finding respite.

By the 19th century, wine adulteration was so prevalent that it became a grim acceptance. When the morose butler in Our Mutual Friend (1865) questioningly offered a guest some Chablis, followed by a word of caution about its contents—Dickens humorously highlights the common belief that wine producers and importers were untrustworthy. Red Burgundy was often mixed with wines from Rhône, Languedoc, and Algeria to make it look appealing and provide the fullness that a weak Pinot Noir lacked. It was a conventional practice that moulded the taste for Burgundy till late 20th century. During another poor summer on the Côte d’Or if the thin cuvées were almost like rosé, they simply enhanced the colour with imported Norwegian blueberries.

In 1874, the British scientist Arthur Hill Hassallreport shocked everyone with a letter to The Times. He disclosed the outcomes of his chemical analysis on a random selection of wines. Some of them contained gypsum; two had no wine at all. With the dawn of France’s appellation system in the 1930s, several convictions for fraud were pronounced after analysing wines that were fraudulently made using Algerian red, blackcurrant juice, sodium metabisulfite, or even beef blood. Such a recipe would only acquire respect in the future era of molecular gastronomy.

The low point was reached when the use of diethylene glycol in the Austrian wine industry in 1985, and the methanol scandal of 1986 in Italy which costed the lives of two dozen consumers, was exposed. The practice was only detected when an Austrian winemaker attempted to reclaim sales tax on his bulk glycol purchases. The system had thrived due to a complicated bribe network, where officials were rewarded in a variety of ways, including extravagant dinners, hunting weekends, and free wine, to overlook the situation.

In the modern era, Gibb focuses on the booming business of wine speculation, and the profits that come from trading old vintages. The specialist wine community has always loved attending large gastronomical events with classic wines from decades and centuries ago, a precursor to auctions that generate huge profits for speculators and auctioneers. At such events, it’s not just the wine that is tasted and theorized about; the authentication of the bottles with the help of professional appraisers is also a crucial part. If the cork looks old and the label looks accurate, without any other signs, who could say what 1895 Lafite should taste like? Experience counts, and as the late Michael Broadbent MW stated in a classic reference textbook, a peek at the label is worth 50 years’ experience.

Currently, the most known champion of the fraud business is Zhen Wang Huang, or Rudy Kurniawan, an Indonesian collector renowned for his generosity and vast knowledge during the 2000s. Dubbed as the owner of the best private wine cellar in the world, he was also a fervent trader of rare and collectible vintages. Suspicions arose when Laurent Ponsot of Morey-St-Denis noticed that Kurniawan was selling old vintages of Clos St-Denis that were produced well before the estate started bottling it. The investigation into Kurniawan’s affairs ultimately revealed a simple home-bottling and labeling operation, while the wines’ chemical analyses exposed an original formula developed by a true wine exponent. The “1945 Mouton Rothschild” was half Cos d’Estournel, a quarter Château Palmer, and a quarter California Cabernet, which in essence was a cleverly manipulated blend.

Kurniawan was given a debatably harsh ten-year prison sentence for his actions, a first in US legal history for wine fraud. Despite the disgust at his deeds, Kurniawan inadvertently highlighted the gullibility that drives reckless markets quite as much as expert advice and investor ingenuity. His legacy might be the ceremonial smashing that now regularly happens after tasting old and rare wines around the world, to guard against refill of the old bottles with different wine. Otherwise, as advised by the Romans, if you are a buyer with money to burn, it’s best to beware.

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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