What do the atom bomb, Thomas Jefferson and a $500,000 wine fraud have in common? An uncommon, radioactive isotope called Cesium-137.
This is a tale of fraudsters, billionaires and the science in between.
Though the wines in question were marketed with pre-Civil War bottling dates, this story really gets going during the 20th century’s Atomic Age. Beginning in World War II and escalating during the Cold War, atmospheric atomic test detonations covered the Earth with a fine powdering of Cesium-137. Nearly everything that was around that time and after—and this includes soil, grapes and, yes, wine—contains trace amounts of the Cesium.
Using gamma ray detection, physicists are able to test for the isotope’s presence, and with that, perform a crude data analysis of either pre-Nuclear or post-nuclear.
According to a suit brought by billionaire Bill Koch (you might have heard of his brothers), Koch himself paid a cool half million at auction for four bottles alleged to have been part of the personal collection of Thomas Jefferson, the third president of the United States.
The catch? The Bordeaux bottles Koch purchased all contained the smoking-gun isotope. This is, of course, problematic, as Jefferson died more than 100 years before the first atomic blast. To get to the bottom of the issue, Koch ordered a sweeping overview of his gigantic wine collection. The results: In his nearly 50,000 bottle cellar, over 200 questionable bottles were reportedly found to have come from one source: Rudy Kurniawan.
Prince of Thieves
Kurniawan, born Zhen Wang Huan, is often shorthanded by the media as “The Bernie Maddof of Wine.” In some ways, it’s hard to blame him. The wine industry—and especially the ultra-rarified world of “investment wines”—has experienced a massive uptick in recent years. One source estimates the wine-collecting industry has tripled over the last decade or so and is now a $300 million juggernaut. Some (arguably loose) estimates postulate that nearly 5% of all wine on the market is counterfeit. Kurniawan is currently serving a 10-year sentence for fraud.
A Matter of Taste
It seems that no rigorous testing has been done as to how the fakes taste. In the interest of protecting the palates and wallets of future wine collectors, I humbly offer my services.
Matt Merkin is a writer and photographer currently based in New York City.