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Something smells rotten
August 27, 2007 11:45 AM   Subscribe

Two tales of fraud from the New Yorker. [more inside]
posted by billysumday (39 comments total) 7 users marked this as a favorite

 
Story One: Auction houses, collectors, and critics have repeatedly been fooled by the charming sociopath Hardy Rodenstock (real name, Meinhard Goerke), who now stands accused of mixing wines and passing them off as, most notably, the purchases of Thomas Jefferson. In the back of his Palm Beach wine cellar, past rows of priceless bottles, behind elegant cast-iron grillework, is a closet in which Koch keeps his very oldest bottles, many of which he now believes are fake. I picked up a bottle of the 1787 Th.J. Lafitte. It was cold and surprisingly heavy in my hands, and I ran my fingers over the letters. Could a shared passion for the rarest old wines have blinded everyone—the collectors, the critics, the auctioneers—to the sheer improbability of those initials? Jefferson had asked in the 1790 letter that his wine and Washington’s wine be marked, but surely he was referring to the cases and not the individual bottles. Wine fraud and mixing, it should be noted, is not a new art.

Story Two: Do you know from what country your olive oil comes? Are you even sure it is made from olives? In 1997 and 1998, olive oil was the most adulterated agricultural product in the European Union, prompting the E.U.’s anti-fraud office to establish an olive-oil task force. (“Profits were comparable to cocaine trafficking, with none of the risks,” one investigator told me.) The E.U. also began phasing out subsidies for olive-oil producers and bottlers, in an effort to reduce crime, and after a few years it disbanded the task force. Yet fraud remains a major international problem: olive oil is far more valuable than most other vegetable oils, but it is costly and time-consuming to produce—and surprisingly easy to doctor. Adulteration is especially common in Italy, the world’s leading importer, consumer, and exporter of olive oil. (For the past ten years, Spain has produced more oil than Italy, but much of it is shipped to Italy for packaging and is sold, legally, as Italian oil.)
posted by billysumday at 11:49 AM on August 27, 2007


How could one collector find so much rare fine wine?

Reminds me of the story of Mark Hoffman, who "uncovered" just about every missing document rumored to exist relating to early Mormonism, and kept selling his counterfeits (to the church, who wanted to hide them) long after the shear improbability of it should have become obvious.
posted by StickyCarpet at 12:00 PM on August 27, 2007


By year';s end we will learn that fake olive oil comes from China
posted by Postroad at 12:14 PM on August 27, 2007


wasn't that a law and order episode?
posted by andywolf at 12:15 PM on August 27, 2007


I read the article about oil when it came out and have had unpleasantly suspicious feelings about much of the olive oil I have otherwise loved. 'Sclafani'? Could you be just fancy hazelnut oil? 'Sitia', my greek beloved, are you just so much fancily-dressed safflower oil? Oh sorrow, oh dietary prevarication...

The diversion into the history of faking oil was brilliant and at once obvious and surprising.

My succor at being so probably betrayed by oils I have loved was at the end when (to paraphrase roundly) it's suggested that "if it tastes good, it is good."

Now I get to find out if my super rare bottle of "George Warshington's Own" that I found at that yard sale is not actually from our founing fathers' personal cellar but just a re-labeled bottle of MD20-20... peel the skins from my eyes...
posted by From Bklyn at 12:19 PM on August 27, 2007


The Fact that our founding father was drinking fortified strawberry wine should've been the first clue.
posted by Challahtronix at 12:24 PM on August 27, 2007 [1 favorite]


More of a reason to buy spanish olive oil and not the italian. Nonetheless, the problem with faking olive oil in the 80's, as far as I can remember, was related to some health hazards (some very odd concoctions that proved to be poisonous).

I guess that the consumers couldn't spot the difference probably because in most of southern europe it's used for cooking rather than as a gourmet treat.

olive oil is far more valuable than most other vegetable oils, but it is costly and time-consuming to produce

Not to mention the stink.
posted by lucia__is__dada at 12:29 PM on August 27, 2007


shear improbability: the chances that you will get fleeced by a rare wine saleman
posted by Mental Wimp at 12:29 PM on August 27, 2007


But Genco olive oil is still okay, right?
posted by Pope Guilty at 12:32 PM on August 27, 2007


What freaks me out is my kid's nut allergies. What if I feed him what I think is olive oil, but is actually a nut oil?

Just another thing to add to the list of things that scare me when I'm feeding him.
posted by wenat at 12:38 PM on August 27, 2007 [2 favorites]


billysumday writes "For the past ten years, Spain has produced more oil than Italy, but much of it is shipped to Italy for packaging and is sold, legally, as Italian oil."

Huh. My family being Spanish, I always think of olive oil being a Spanish thing (though I know, on some level, that it's not), so I instinctively go for the Spanish olive oil over any other country.

Come to think of it, I'm not sure if I've ever even seen olive oil labelled as Italian. It's either generic local stuff, or Spanish. Maybe occasionally Greek.
posted by Bugbread at 12:40 PM on August 27, 2007


Though a fair amount of rum, brandy and wine flowed during the time of the Revolutionary War, many of the founding fathers - including Washington and Jefferson - distilled apple cider or otherwise sold it in taverns.

See also: culinary traditions in colonial times
posted by Smart Dalek at 12:42 PM on August 27, 2007


Goerke got hundreds for Lincoln's bottle of Maddog 18/60.
posted by inigo2 at 12:53 PM on August 27, 2007


I just finished the first article on the fake Jefferson wines (and others). It was very good, fun to read. Not so fun to learn that Rodenstock is still getting away with it. They make a pretty convincing case, but I suppose he could be innocent. His responses to the questions, though, make him seem more guilty rather than less. But there's editing.
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 12:56 PM on August 27, 2007


That first article was fascinating. so much for work. that olive oil one was pretty scary, just because of people I know with nasty nut allergies.
posted by shmegegge at 1:08 PM on August 27, 2007


Pope Guilty wrote:

But Genco olive oil is still okay, right?

That oil was found to have high lead content - as did the reporter who published the test results :0
posted by any major dude at 1:11 PM on August 27, 2007 [1 favorite]


More of a reason to buy spanish olive oil

do you mean Tunisian oil, right? because that's where most of the Spanish olive oil comes from anyway. the Tunisians have made monster advances in the olive-oil production numbers -- almost as big as the Spaniards, actually.

Spanish olive oil, as correctly reported in the New Yorker story, has been considered since, well, forever, of inferior quality when compared to Italian and Greek. the fact that the Spaniards, especially post-Franco, have made huge increases in the amounts of olive oil they produce does not really indicate higher quality, on the contrary.

at this point, in the era of monster growth in demand that has obviously spurred a huge pressure on oil makers to make more, more more, well, smaller is better, it's where it's at. the risk of buying substandard olive oil is there -- as a rule of thumb, Southern Italian oils being much more at risk of having been tampered with than, say, oils from Umbria or Tuscany -- but what one should do, if possible, is to locate a smaller, boutique producer that is well-regarded in the business, an oilmaker one trusts. and then buy, for a premium, their product.

it means of course that one should probably use the really really expensive stuff for salads etc and leave the more affordable (but still coming from a smaller, trusted oilmaker) oil for cooking. and it's not horribly expensive, the boutique stuff, if you buy it in bulk together with friends -- but of course if you keep buying single half-liter tiny bottles, you'll pay through the nose. me, I'd rather eat my salad without condiment than use some of the industrial that's out there -- for family reasons, I grew up to be a bit of an olive oil snob

but then, as the story explains quite clearly, making good olive oil is way too painstaking a process to keep prices down. too many people will take shortcuts.
posted by matteo at 1:12 PM on August 27, 2007


wenat wrote:

What freaks me out is my kid's nut allergies. What if I feed him what I think is olive oil, but is actually a nut oil?

don't worry the free market will fix it. Once your kid dies you can sue them and your family will be compensated up to $250,000. See - all better thanks to the free market.
posted by any major dude at 1:14 PM on August 27, 2007


Nut allergies was the first thing I thought about, reading the olive oil article. Sleazy dealin's are one thing - killing a lot of people is quite another.
posted by sidereal at 1:21 PM on August 27, 2007


My God, that wine article was so well-written, mindblowing and infuriating. There are really no sympathetic people in this story: the arrogant, hyperrich douchebag that gets swindled, can't let go and spends five times more getting even than he spent on (what was very likely) a fake; the ambitious private investigator guy champing at the bit and acting like his fraud case is the most important investigation since ever; the weaselly, cleverer-than-thou fraudster who, with a modicum of self-integrity probably could have been a great legitimate blender. Guh. (Personal lesson learned: stick to beer.)

It also reinforces my bias against people who unironically use the word "class" as a modifier ("...more flavors, more caramel, more singularity, more power, more class," [Rodenstock] once told an interviewer.) (Although, I guess you could make the case that Rodenstock's statement was ironic since he very likely doesn't know what pre-phylloxera wines taste like.)
posted by cog_nate at 1:25 PM on August 27, 2007


cog_nate: I had the same thought when I read the article. Rodenstock would still be getting away with his transgressions scandal-free if it hadn't been for the meddling billionaire with a penchant for subpoenas. And then there is the wine expert for Christie's, who can't admit that Rodenstock is a fraud or else ruin the credibility of much of his life's work. It's seemingly very similar to the art world - groupthink and tastemakers reinforce that which is most beneficial to a select group at the expense of authenticity and transparency.
posted by billysumday at 1:32 PM on August 27, 2007


billysumday: I was seriously thinking the same thing re: the art world (cf. I Bought Andy Warhol). The only marginally sympathetic people in the wine article are the producers, who are having their reputations traded on and yet (most likely) didn't even produce the wines in question and have no say when it comes to Christie's or Sotheby's or gray market stuff. (Of course, the people who produced the wines in question are dead or probably rich enough to not be materially harmed at this point.)
posted by cog_nate at 1:41 PM on August 27, 2007


That was a good read.
And one more reason to stick to two buck chuck.
posted by Iron Rat at 2:13 PM on August 27, 2007


Hear this violin, playing for the poor gazillionaire who got ripped off for paying obscene amounts of money for bottles of old crushed grapes, and clogging the legal system with his gratuitous lawsuits?

The U.S.: All the justice for those who can afford it.

I hope he chokes on that musty, overpriced grape juice.

Good article, but jeez, what a load of crushed horseshit. Not one shred of sympathy for any of those morons with too much money. NONE.
posted by dbiedny at 2:35 PM on August 27, 2007


bugbread - the dean & deluca in shinagawa has Italian olive oil, IIRC. It was pretty easy to find in and around Tokyo. There are some kick-ass Italian restaurants there. One of my faves is on Roppongi Dori in Minami Aoyama, across from where Nobu was. Can't remember the name (Anthony's, maybe), but it's been there since the 40's.
posted by bashos_frog at 2:42 PM on August 27, 2007


I'm just going to wait 20 years and start buying English olive oil. Or maybe the Danish olive oil.
posted by GuyZero at 2:51 PM on August 27, 2007


Good article, but jeez, what a load of crushed horseshit. Not one shred of sympathy for any of those morons with too much money. NONE.

I think when you get to that level of money, the money doesn't matter to them; instead, it's about personal relationships.

Take two very poor people living next door to one another, who get so worked up over the status of, say, a case of beer that goes missing. They get so worked up, in fact, that one person ends up shooting the other. Right there, that's two people who have a personal difference that is only catalysed by the physical object involved, and who settle that difference by the means they're comfortable with: violence.

These guys with the wine, same thing applies, because to them this high-priced wine is as cheap as beer to the poor guys. Only difference? They live in a world where suing each other is the equivalent to beating each other up in a poor person's world -- it's what you do to resolve conflict.

Of course, do we have sympathy for those poor folks fighting over (ostensibly) the beer? Nope, none there either.

But then, should we expect anyone to have sympathy for us in similar circumstances? Is being unable to relate to the catalyst for an argument cause to summarily dump any sympathy for the victim(s), because we can't relate to it? Dunno.
posted by davejay at 2:54 PM on August 27, 2007


There was a L&O:Criminal Intent episode inspired by the Mormon forgeries, and the forgerer was played by Stephen Colbert.
posted by beowulf573 at 3:10 PM on August 27, 2007


There was a L&O:Criminal Intent episode inspired by the Mormon forgeries, and the forgerer was played by Stephen Colbert.

My God, I must see that!!
posted by billysumday at 3:27 PM on August 27, 2007


I love the fact that somebody owns Lincoln's opera glasses and Custer's rifle. It just reminds me of Thurston Howell.

making your own olive oil
posted by mecran01 at 3:39 PM on August 27, 2007


I refuse to read anything in the New Yorker that is not an advertisement for a mug or a t-shirt or a dental dam with Eustace Tilley silkscreened on it.
posted by analogue at 4:44 PM on August 27, 2007


There was a L&O:Criminal Intent episode inspired by the Mormon forgeries, and the forgerer was played by Stephen Colbert.

There was also a CSI NEW YORK last season about wine forgery.
posted by UseyurBrain at 7:09 PM on August 27, 2007


With regard to nut allergies, it appears commercially produced peanut oil is pretty safe, and I can't believe the forgers would be sourcing artisan cold pressed peanut oil:
"Although occasional reports of allergic reactions to peanut oil are reported, most doctors believe that highly refined peanut oil is safe to use. It's safe because the protein is removed during the processing." Cite
posted by bystander at 9:37 PM on August 27, 2007


I'm beginning to think my bottle of "Dino Vino" wasn't originally owned by Thomas Jefferson.
posted by mazola at 9:49 PM on August 27, 2007


Most of the 'extra virgin olive oil' I've bought in supermarkets has just about no taste whatsoever. It's not very surprising that it could be fake.
posted by stavrogin at 12:17 AM on August 28, 2007


"There was a L&O:Criminal Intent episode inspired by the Mormon forgeries, and the forgerer was played by Stephen Colbert."

Your lying! ....(type type type....)

Holy shit!
posted by From Bklyn at 12:28 AM on August 28, 2007


Cheap extra virgin olive oil is of such bad quality that I use it to cook with when I can't find the regular no-taste olive oil. The quality divisions are pretty irrelevant--it's still healthier than canola etc. and I expect adulterations already.
posted by laconic titan at 3:50 AM on August 28, 2007


Does this thing go on with U.S. produced olive oil?
posted by delmoi at 6:35 AM on August 29, 2007


I just read the wine-fraud article, thought it was fantastic, and was going to post it to MeFi, but did a search and this came up. I had missed this post before because "Two tales of fraud from the New Yorker" was so minimalist my eyes must have slid right over it. Less is more, and all that, but it might have been a good idea to provide a little more of a hook. (Also, I'm not sure it makes sense to combine two completely different and individually interesting stories into one post just because they both deal with fraud and were published in the same magazine.)

Anyway, not that anybody's reading this thread any more, but that's my opinion, and that's what I think. By god.
posted by languagehat at 7:37 AM on September 15, 2007


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