Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Wine Fraud and the Atom Bomb

Sometimes, a story is published that, though it has little bearing on the wine lives of the vast majority of us, brings a smile to the face anyway. That’s exactly the kind of piece that I saw this morning on the web site of Scientific American Magazine.

The piece deals with wine forgeries, expensive bottles, and an ingenious way to verify the vintage of the most expensive ones. The story begins by noting that “[the] most expensive wine ever sold in the U.S. was a Montrachet 1978 from Domaine de la Romanee-Conti, according to a report by Following a bidding war between two avid collectors, the seven-bottle lot sold for a whopping $167,500 (almost $24,000 per bottle) in a 2001 auction at New York City's Sotheby's.”

So here’s the issue: How can the winner of the bottles ultimately be positive that they are, in fact, what they’re supposed to be, and not well-crafted fakes?

Easy, notes the article: Let atmospheric radiation do the work.

“Radioactive carbon released into the atmosphere during the [atomic bomb-testing] blasts [between the late 1940s and 1963] and then absorbed by grapes can be used to accurately determine wine vintages, according to a study presented March 21 at the National Meeting of the American Chemical Society. By comparing the level of a radioactive form of carbon (carbon-14) to the level of the more stable and abundant carbon isotope (carbon-12), Jones and his team from the University of Adelaide in Australia were able to determine what year a wine was really made.”

Wine fraud has become a major issue, especially as prices have climbed through the stratosphere. And in recent years, with the publication of books on the subject (my personal favorite is The Billionaire’s Vinegar by Benjamin Wallace), and with well-publicized instances of fakes winding up at auction (the Domaine Ponsot scandal, linked up right here, is a great example), the authenticity of great old vintages is on everyone’s mind. Now, with this technology, there seems to be a way to fight back. And a pretty fascinating one, at that.


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