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Nefarious Deeds

New book exposes wine frauds

By Neal D. Hulkower

Joseph Wagner does not appear in Rebecca Gibb MW’s Vintage Crime: A Short History of Wine Fraud though he certainly would have qualified for inclusion. The manager of Copper Cane Winery in Rutherford, California– and a tainted name in the Oregon wine community– has earned a place among those sanctioned for misrepresenting the origin of grapes on his bottles. In 2018, Wagner released 2017 Willametter Journal and 2017 Elouan, two Pinot Noirs made from Oregon grapes. In his review of the former in the Wine Enthusiast, Paul Gregutt observed “Despite the name, this loose and fruity wine carries the basic Oregon AVA and shows no specific flavors of Willamette Valley terroir.” At least as egregious is the claim in the tech sheet and label stating Elouan’s “fruit [comes from] three premiere growing regions along Oregon’s coast…Northern Coastal Valley…Central Coastal Hills…[and] Southern Coastal Valley…” none of which exist except in Wagner’s imagination and on a map on the sheet and label.

Gibb allows that hers “is a book about people as much as wine, and people generally prove more interesting than fermented grape juice.” She continues, “Those who are struggling to protect their livelihood will naturally have a different relationship with wine than those who quaff it without a second thought.” The uproar caused by Wagner’s misleading labeling proves that statement. Jim Bernau, founder and principal owner of Willamette Valley Vineyards, became the voice of indignation: “The marketing is deceptive, violating federal and state law.”

But, as Gibb documents, problematic practices in the wine industry are nothing new. In her book, she highlights questionable and even deadly adjustments to wine as far back as two thousand years ago. Some, like adding herbs and spices, masked spoiled wine, while others, like dosing with lead to sweeten the juice, sickened and killed those who partook. It seems that historically wine fraud falls on a continuum from standard practice to deliberate dishonesty. Mislabeling is the differentiator.

Following the introduction, “A Story as Old as Wine Itself,” are ten chapters, with some titles reflecting Gibb’s glibness: When in Rome, Dying for a Drink, An Enlightened Drinker?, Predict a Riot, Appellation Nation, Winegate, You Say ‘Prost,’ I Say ‘Frost!, Indian Jones and the Glass Crusade, A Message to You, Rudy, and The Last Drop. Acknowledgments follow in which we learn the motivation for the book arose from Gibb’s dissertation for a Master of Wine on the Champagne riots of 2011 caused by the fraud. Notes, an extensive Selected Bibliography and detailed Index complete the text.

The first two chapters describe the customary practices of making wine more palatable and pleasing before the science was available to ensure no harm was being done. “Wine producers in Rome had a cornucopia of ingredients at their disposal to make wines that were pleasurable and would remain so for more than a few months,” Gibb explains. But no one considered them adulteration. While “The finest– and purest– wines were imbibed by the rich who could afford to value provenance and authenticity,… [t]he average Roman would have had a different relationship with wine; purity and its origins would have been of little concern,” she notes. To turn something on the verge of becoming vinegar to a more drinkable product, it was acceptable to mix in a little seasoning.

Either deliberately or inadvertently, the Romans also added lead to wine to add sweetness, mask flaws and increase its life, but not necessarily the life of the consumer. Sapa, a syrup made by reducing grape must in lead-lined pots, was one source. “While these practices would be considered illegal adulteration due to their potential lethal consequences, adding sapa was considered a form of amelioration in Roman time, highlighting how perceptions of what is and isn’t fraudulent have evolved over the course of history,” observes Gibb.

Despite the practice of adding toxins to wine being banned in Rome in 1498, it continued for at least two centuries. In 1696, monks in the city of Ulm, Germany, were succumbing to lead in their wine. “The painfully slow acceptance of evidence that was presented by a doctor in Ulm…might have been due to poor communications at the time, but there were certainly many wine merchants who placed their own financial interests before the health of others, allowing the practice to continue,” Gibb asserts.

As our scientific understanding grew about the impact of additives, things began to change. In 1820, London-based German chemist, Friedrich Accum, wrote the Treatise on Adulterations of Food, and Culinary Poisins: Exhibiting the Fraudulent Sophistications of Bread, Beer, Wine, Spirituous Liquors, Tea, Coffee, Cream, Confectionery, Vinegar, Mustard, Pepper, Cheese, Olive Oil, Pickles, and Other Articles Employed in Domestic Economy, and Methods of Detecting Them. The book brought the issue to the forefront. In it, he identified wine as being adulterated more than most other products. Though the book sold well, the practice continued, even after Britain outlawed food adulteration in 1860 and in 1875 with the Sale of Foods and Drugs Act, which carried severe penalties.
The arrival of Phylloxera vastatrix, the infamous aphid that eventually destroyed most European vineyards in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, hindered efforts for the wine industry to clean up its act. Inferior grapes grown outside the regions known for producing superior wines were combined to compensate for the shortfall while cashing in on the reputation. This led to the 1911 Champagne Riots which, in turn, led to reforms. They were delayed by World War I.
One important was the institution of the appellation system guaranteeing the origin of the contents of the bottle. Pierre Baron Le Roy de Bosieaumarié is recognized as leading the effort to protect the name Châteauneuf-du-Pape. His work culminated in 1924 with barrels of wine labeled with an official stamp of approval, over a decade before France created the appellation contrôlée system in 1935.

Another defense against fraud that gained traction was bottling at the estate, where the wine was made, rather than shipping barrels for merchants to bottle themselves. It was common practice for merchants to blend them with wines made elsewhere. Frank Schoonmaker, in his The Complete Wine Book, which appeared in 1934, praises winemakers who adopted the practice. I remember seeking out Burgundies labeled mise du domaine in the 1970s to avoid falling victim to negotiants suspected of questionable activities.

Though more sophisticated techniques emerged to expose fraud and laws were passed, the problem has never disappeared. Gibb dedicates four chapters to more recent instances in Bordeaux and Austria and the alleged wines of Thomas Jefferson. Perhaps the most notorious of these vinous villains is Indonesian Rudy Kurniawan, “the first scammer to be jailed,” who served time in the U.S. before being deported.

Despite a degree in history and politics from the University of Warwick, Gibb allowed two glaring errors to slip into her book. First, she claims that during World War I, Baron Le Roy was “one of the first one hundred fighter jet pilots to graduate from the Armée de l’Air, the embryonic French air force.” The problem: jets hadn’t been invented at that time. All planes were powered by propellers.

Even allowing for the fact that Gibb is British and wasn’t born when the events were unfolding, she should know that former President Richard Nixon was never impeached. The claim that he was appears three times. Simply visiting Wikipedia will clarify that although the U.S. House of Representatives adopted a “[r]esolution containing three articles of impeachment [on] July 30, 1974; the impeachment proceedings ended on August 20, 1974, without an impeachment vote, after President Nixon resigned from office.”

Gibb’s approach is admirable: to delve deeply into a few more flagrant instances of wine fraud with plenty of delightful and detailed digressions to supply context and color, rather simply presents a broad but shallow survey. As such, correct facts matter. I hope that these are the only two inaccuracies.
Gibb begins the last chapter asking, “Why are we fascinated by fraud?” W. Blake Gray reported on that “Wine fraud expert Maureen Downey has uncovered photos and tasting notes from a dinner held in Singapore in July at the exclusive Pines Club. Kurniawan was tasked with creating fake versions of 1990 DRC Romanée-Conti and 1990 Petrus, which seven guests tasted against the originals. Most of the tasters preferred the fakes.” Though this doesn’t cross any lines, Gray asked: “If Kurniawan is making fake wines for friends, could they find their way to the market? What’s happening to the real empty bottles brought to these wine dinners? Kurniawan always collected such empties in his Los Angeles heyday because it’s easier to refill a real bottle than to create a new one.”

While Gibb ponders why fraudsters deceive, what I found amusing is the discussion of whether what was intended to address the problem of wine fraud may actually encourage it. “Appellation laws were founded on the concept of terroir, and while it is certainly true to say that wines made from grapes grown in different vineyards taste different, appellations were often crafted to suit the needs of the people they were created to protect… Do we place too much emphasis on place as a guarantor of quality?” she wonders.

The Joe Wagner case represents a classic example of violating both state and federal appellation laws. After much uproar, the Oregon Liquor and Cannabis Commission, better known as the OLCC, requested that the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau, or TTB, direct “the TTB Trade Investigations Division, including the Market Compliance Office, [to] initiate a compliance audit of Copper Cane wines, specifically the Elouan and Willametter brands.” The TTB, which originally approved the labels, reversed itself, forced Wagner to change them. The OLCC followed up by revoking Copper Cane’s license to sell wine in Oregon. On September 23, 2021, it levied a $50,000 fine, one of the largest in its history, against Copper Cane. From the commission’s press release: “Although Copper Cane opted to settle the charges, the winery didn’t admit to the allegations or accept responsibility for mislabeling their products. However, the winery agreed to pay the fine and abide by all wine labeling standards going forward.”

Vintage Crime, despite the two surprising errors, satisfies its objective of being “an abridged history of wine told through some of the most high-profile wine scams and some of the lesser-known duplicitous behaviors that have plagued wine for as long as it has been traded.” That it is very well written by an adept author for the general reader, makes it an informative, yet cautionary, diversion.

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