Last week, I talked about modern wine fraud. Well, it turns out that wine fraud has been around for a long time. Pliny the Elder, a Roman naval officer and scientist who famously died in A.D. 79 on the waters just outside of Pompeii during the famous Vesuvian eruption, is quoted as lamenting wine fraud even in his day. Falernian wine at the time was one of the most coveted Italian wines (sadly no longer in existence), and Pliny is thought to have voiced irritation that even the most affluent nobles couldn’t be sure that they were buying the real deal.
Wine fraud in some form or another has been around forever. Sometimes more or less benign, and sometimes downright dangerous to the consumer, wine fraud has a history of its own.
Some winemaking practices have evolved from being deemed fraudulent to becoming normal practice. Take, for example, the Portuguese creation of Port, a fortified wine. Adding additional alcohol was at one time thought to be a form of wine fraud. The additional alcohol was needed to stabilize the wine during its long ocean voyage from Portugal to England. Today, Port is simply a wonderful, fortified wine, improved shipping methods notwithstanding.
In the Middle Ages, with the advancement of science, there was so much wine fraud in taverns and establishments that special laws were enacted. One of them included mandating storing German, French and Italian wines separately to prevent intentional mixing or cross-labeling. In typical Middle Age fashion, punishment for these severe crimes could range from beating to hanging.
Watering down wine is probably the oldest and most benign form of wine adulteration. Most reputable restaurants will not bring an already opened bottle of wine to your table, but will open it in front of you. There are other downright dangerous practices, however, including adding lead acetate, diethylene glycol and even methanol to wine to increase its sweetness. Although one would have to ingest a lot of the latter, no lead is good lead, and at least a score of people died as a result of one Italian wine maker adding toxic wood alcohol to wine to increase alcohol content.
So what’s your best defense against wine fraud? If you want to spend a lot of money on a wine, do a lot of research or buy directly from the producer. Going to a famous auction house like Sotheby’s isn’t necessarily a guarantee of authenticity, as they have been unwitting partners to scam sales. Visiting wineries is not only great fun, but you are pretty much 100% guaranteed that whatever you buy will be the real deal.
With so much opportunity to buy authentic wine, no one needs to be a victim of wine fraud.