Story #5: Hidden Kitchens — Atomic Wine: The Hidden World of Counterfeit Wine
In a laboratory, deep under a mile high stretch of the Alps on the French-Italian border, Philippe Hubert, a physicist at the University of Bordeaux, tests a suspect bottle of wine.“I take the bottle in the hand,” says Hubert. “ I put the bottle close to the detector. Then I close the shielding and we start to record the gamma rays. We are looking for radioactivity in the wine. Most of the time the collectors send me bottles of wine because they want to know if it is fake or not.”
Maureen Downey, “wine detective” and founder of Chai Consulting wine appraisal and authentication, has a toolkit of items she uses to forensically examine bottles of wine— razor blades, magnifying glasses, jewelers loupes, flashlights, blue light.
“Counterfeit wines have become a much bigger problem of late,” says Downey. “In the last year, I myself have written reports for about 5 million dollars worth of fakes.”
Experts are going to greater lengths than ever before to authenticate wine. The fibers of the label paper, the tiny pits in the glass, the depth of the punt in the bottom of the bottle, all hold clues.
“Fraudsters put a lot of work into trying to make their corks look distressed,” says Jancis Robinson, who writes about wine for jancisrobinson.com and The Financial Times. “It’s important that the label look like it’s been around the block a bit so they might rub it with a bit of earth or coffee grounds.”
THE JEFFERSON BOTTLES
“There are two ways to counterfeit wine,” says Patrick Radden Keefe. “You’re either messing with the bottle or you’re messing with the wine itself.” Keefe, a staff writer at the New Yorker Magazine, wrote a story called the “Jefferson Bottles.”
The saga of the Jefferson bottles begins In 1985 at a wine auction at Christies in London where they auctioned off a bottle of 1787 Lafite, one of the finest vineyards in France.
“It was a very old bottle inscribed in a spindly hand with 1787, Lafite, and the letters “Th.J,” says Keefe. “Christies said that evidence suggested that this bottle came from a collection of old French wines which had belonged to Thomas Jefferson.”
The bottle sold for about $157,000 to billionaire Malcom Forbes—the most expensive bottle of wine ever sold at auction. Keefe relates that when Forbes was told he’d won the bid he said, “It’s more fun than the opera glasses Lincoln was holding when he was shot. And we have those too.”
Wine collectors jockeyed to get hold of other Jefferson bottles as they began to emerge on the market. Bill Koch, whose brothers Charles and David of Koch Industries are often referred to as the Koch brothers, is an avid collector of art, western Americana and wine. He purchased four of the Jefferson bottles in the late 1980s for a half million dollars.
“When people came to visit and have wine in his capacious wine cellar at his home in Palm Beach,” says Keefe, ”Bill Koch would proudly show off his Jefferson bottles.
In 2005, when the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston was preparing for an exhibit of Koch’s collection, they contacted the Thomas Jefferson Foundation at Monticello to verify the provenance of the wines.
“All of us at Monticello at that time were very skeptical about any connection between Jefferson and these wine bottles” says Lucia (Cinder) Stanton, who worked at Monticello for over 30 years and was senior historian at the time.”
Jefferson was the “leading wine connoisseur of the Republic, the presiding expert in French wine in this country.” He ordered wine for George Washington and he wrote out descriptions of the first growths and best wines in France for a number of American merchants. He was also a meticulous record keeper who recorded every aspect of his life in detail. When he returned from France he had the wines he’d purchased for himself and President Washington carefully shipped to the United States. According to his detailed books they all arrived intact.
“In his vast records of over 60,000 documents,” says Stanton, “there was nothing that suggested Jefferson had ever ordered any of these wines. “In the so-called “Jefferson bottles” there were about a dozen bottles including a 1784 and a 1787 Chateaux d’Yquem, a 1787 Lafite, a Margaux. Most of them were 1787, a vintage Jefferson never ordered in his life.”
THE GOOD THE BAD AND THE UGLY
When Bill Koch realized that he had potentially been crossed he contacted Jim Elroy a former FBI agent.
“Elroy is a kind of a genial, bloodhound of a guy,” says Keefe. “The ring on his cell phone is the whistled theme to The Good The Bad and the Ugly. So Koch says to Elroy, ‘Saddle up.’ And Elroy did.”
Elroy put together a team of wine experts, a former Scotland Yard inspector in England, a former MI5 agent in Germany, and launched an international investigation.
“I identified the perpetrator as a man named Hardy Rodenstock,” says Elroy. “Actually his true name was Meinhard Görke.”
Hardy Rodenstock, a former music publisher who managed German pop acts, had been a fixture on the European wine scene since the 1980s. He was well known for hosting lavish, flamboyant wine tastings inviting celebrities, dignitaries and wine critics.
“Hardy I met quite a few times,” says wine expert Jancis Robinson. “Hardy supposedly found the Jefferson bottles in a bricked up cellar in Paris, but he couldn’t give anymore details. He was never specific about exactly how many bottles there were.”
THE CESIUM 137 TEST
Jim Elroy had a hunch that the wine in the Jefferson bottles did not date to the 18th century, but he needed a way to prove it, preferably without opening the bottle and destroying its contents.
“I started looking in Scientific American magazine,” said Elroy, “and I found an article that Philippe Hubert, a French physicist, had written about using low level gamma ray detection for Cesium 137 to date wine. Cesuim 137 did not exist on this planet until we exploded the first atomic bomb.”
“The Cesium radioactivity we find in the wines reflects exactly the history of the atomic age,” explains physicist Philippe Hubert. “It is radioactive isotope which is not natural. It’s a fission product. First you had the development of the nuclear bomb, Hiroshima, Nagasaki. Then in the 50s and 60s the cold war between the US and Soviets and the nuclear atmospheric tests. Then in 1986 the Chernobyl accident which released a lot of cesium activity into the atmosphere. And then Fukishima Daiichi in Japan, we are following that.”
This radioactivity is everywhere on earth—in our food, clothing, the cells of our body. “It is in the atmosphere,” says Hubert. “And then with rain this radioactivity falls on the grapes. When you make the wine this comes into the wine and stays into the wine.”
Jim Elroy was confident that this was going to be the smoking gun that would prove Rodenstock guilty of fabricating the Jefferson bottles. He personally flew to the French Italian border where Hubert was going to do the test, carrying the Jefferson bottles in bullet proof cases.
“By looking at the level of gamma rays emitted from a bottle of wine, ” Elroy explains Hubert could determine when the wine was bottle. Obviously, if it was bottled before about 1945 there shouldn’t be any Cesium 137 in the wine.”
The experiment took place a mile underground to shield the test from the gamma rays in the atmosphere. “In order to shield the detector even further,” says Elroy, “we had to use lead that was smelted prior to 1945, in this case it was Roman lead smelted shortly after the birth of Christ.”
Hubert subjected the Jefferson bottles to the test. “We don’t need to open the bottles,” says Hubert. “The gamma rays can escape the wine and cross the thickness of the glass without any problem.”
“Unfortunately,” says Hubert, “we could not detect any Cesium inside the wine.” It was certain that the wine had been bottled before the atomic age. But there was no way this test could prove whether or not this wine was as old as Jefferson.
RECIPES AND DENTIST TOOLS
Counterfeiting wine is not new. “Louis XIV had a royal decree that all of the wine barrels coming from the Côtes du Rhône area had to be stamped with a CDR to prove that they were Côtes du Rhône,” say wine detective Maureen Downey.
Fraudster Rudy Kurniawan, who is now in jail for creating and selling counterfeit wine, had an entire laboratory in Arcadia, California in his condominium.
“Kurniawan’s kitchen was literally a factory for making counterfeit wine,” says Maureen Downey who went through the evidence with the DA and the FBI. “He had recipes written on bottles in his kitchen. For example, his recipe for 1945 Mouton Rothschild said: ½ 1988 Pichon Melant; ¼ oxidized Bordeaux; and ¼ Napa Cab.”
“You’re not talking about plonk that is being put into these bottles,” says Downey, “these are careful recipes. I don’t know if Kurniwan was a great chef, or a chemist.”
And what about the Jefferson Bottles? Bill Koch’s investigators tracked down the people in Germany who had engraved the Jefferson Bottles with Th.J. They used a modern dentist tool that could not possible have existed in the time of Thomas Jefferson.
“One expert likens it to Abraham Lincoln holding an iPhone,” says Maureen Downey. “When you’ve got Abraham Lincoln in a photograph holding an iPhone, we’ve got a problem.”
Atomic Wine Recipes
How to Make Rudy Kurniawan’s bottle of “1945 Rothschild Chateau Mouton”
The 1945 Rothschild Chateau Mouton is considered to be one of the last great vintages of the century.
- ½ Bottle ’88 Pichon Longueville
- ¼ Bottle oxidized Bordeaux
- ¼ Napa Valley Cabernet
To learn more about the 1945 bottle, visit Decanter magazine.
Inside Rudy’s Kitchen
Wine Detective Maureen Downey breaks down rudy kurniawan’s wine recipes[audio: http://www.kitchensisters.org/audio/Fake%20Wine%20Recipe.mp3]
Humanists & Scholars
For additional academic references, please see the following publication:
Read Patrick’s The New Yorker article “The Jefferson Bottles” here.
Songs from the Atomic Wine
More information about the group can be found on their website.