The Atomic Age Is Helping Combat Wine Fraud

In light of recurring cases of wine fraud, the technology to investigate the authenticity of wine is evolving. By evaluating and examining “the fibers of the label paper, the tiny pits in the glass, the depth of the punt in the bottom of the bottle” and more, experts like Maureen Downey can determine the veracity of vintage wines. According to NPR, the techniques deployed by “wine detectives” range from run-of-the-mill razor blades and magnifying glasses to blue lights and gamma ray detectors. 

The fascinating tale of  the Jefferson bottles sums up the James Bond-esque nature of today’s wine investigations. In the late 1980s, avid art and wine collector Bill Koch paid $500,000 for four bottles of wine that were assumed to have belonged to Thomas Jefferson. When the authenticity of his collection was questioned by the Thomas Jefferson Foundation, Koch hired former FBI agent Jim Elroy. 

Elroy took the bottles to Philippe Hubert, a physicist at the University of Bordeaux. By searching for cesium 137, an artificial radioactive substance that didn’t exist on Earth until the first atomic bomb, they were able to determine if the wine predated 1945. No cesium 137 was found in the bottle, but that only proved that the wine was bottled before the Atomic Age—it didn’t prove “whether or not this wine was as old as Jefferson.”

In the end, Koch’s investigators could prove that the bottles were in fact fake, as they “tracked down the people in Germany who had engraved the Jefferson bottles with Th. J.,” unsing modern dentists tools that didn’t exist in Thomas Jefferson’s time. 

“One expert likens it to Abraham Lincoln holding an iPhone,” says Downey. “When you’ve got Abraham Lincoln in a photograph holding an iPhone, we’ve got a problem.” [NPR] [Photo: Flickr/University of Liverpool Faculty of Health & Life Science]