A Pinot Noir
May 26, 2015 4:32 AM   Subscribe

“Diamonds are easier to trace than wine,” says Jason Hernandez, a former U.S. attorney who prosecuted one of the largest wine counterfeiting cases in 2013. “Even if you’re looking at something like a 1982 Château Lafite,” he says, referring to what oenophiles consider one of the best wines in the world from one of the best years, “they made 20,000 cases of that wine. How do you tell one bottle from the next?
posted by ellieBOA (68 comments total) 17 users marked this as a favorite
 
Its an interesting thing. At the end of the day wine is worth what people are willing to pay for it. These people could just as easily suffer a capital loss from people deciding screagle sucks or that DRC is overpriced. In a way the perceived scarcity value of these things contributes to their value so the thefts help people who didn't get their things stolen.
posted by JPD at 4:53 AM on May 26, 2015


"an unusually sensitive palate that made it possible for her to discern subtleties that other people just didn’t notice"- this has always been interesting as it applies to wine at the high end. What is the boundary between the undetectable (for 'other people') and the non-existent or fabricated? (I say this as someone who attempts to appreciate a good bottle).
posted by Rufus T. Firefly at 4:58 AM on May 26, 2015 [1 favorite]


How do you tell one bottle from the next?”

I'm no detective, and even less of an expert on wine, but the article seems to provide a clue.

The Napa detectives knew it was French Laundry wine because the restaurant gave them a list of the serial numbers by which each bottle could be identified.

(Inspector Clouseau voice)

*The case is sol-ved.*
posted by three blind mice at 4:59 AM on May 26, 2015 [2 favorites]


I'm always curious how these people with the unusually sensitive palates do on the "white wine + food colouring" tests. (I do not have an unusually sensitive palate.)
posted by jeather at 5:07 AM on May 26, 2015


Food Colouring has a specific kind of taste from the alcohol and the components of the actual pigment.

If you just add a lot of food colouring to a basic buttercream frosting, you'll get a sense of this taste.

Presumably, the more sensitive palate, the easier to identify this taste over wine.
posted by jefflowrey at 5:11 AM on May 26, 2015


I often have contempt for the obvious puns but I am making a big exception for this post's title
posted by thelonius at 5:25 AM on May 26, 2015 [3 favorites]


The chemistry of wine has been nearly completely resolved for the better part of a decade now, that is we know more or less the majority of compounds that make up wine. It's accessible through various forms of chromatography, both gas and liquid phase.

It's possible to take that list of compounds and look for ones that vary considerably from grape to grape, and from wine to wine. Something like alcohol, for instance, isn't going to be very distinctive. It changes a percent or two between wines, and would be one of the first thing a counterfeiter would adjust to fake. On the other hand some of the chemical markers for taste are pretty discriminatory, certain wine varieties will make more, some will make less. They're harder to fake up to be the similar.

The next step is to consider the concentrations of not just one compound, but dozens or more. These can then get fed into analyses to group wines by the array and amounts of the measured compounds. Principle component analysis is one of the common choices* used to group the results, to create composite measures to better differentiate one wine from another.

Such analysis makes the chemistry useful to be able to tell how similar one wine is to another. Typically, a "map" of wines needs to then be created, a bunch of wines measured, to figure out what "how similar" means in terms of the variabilities between wines. The more members the chemical distribution database has, the more precisely a candidate wine could be identified.

Knowing this final piece of information, a detective can then get an analysis of a wine source, from the vintner that made the original wine, and the suspect sources, those that may be fakes or stolen. Knowing how far "apart" the chemical compositions of bottles from the same batch would be expected to be, the investigator can then, with the analysis and application of something as simple as a t-test, tell if the wines are from the same batch, identical, of a similar type or different entirely.

Here's a couple of examples of that sort of work. The first looks at diffrentiation of wine by grape varietal using volatile compounds. Another uses multiple analytical techniques looking at using some of the flavonoids for tracing wines. These are both chemical method development and "map building" papers, technique documents.

The science, chemometrics, is fairly young, having been mostly invented in the past two decades. It's coming into its own now as instruments and analysis techniques get to the point where these sorts of analyses are just now becoming cheap enough and good enough to use for these sorts of large problems. It's use in forensics is only one minor application, in fact. It's real driver is measuring flavours to develop a wine and for quality control for the vintners. But it makes a great CSI tool as well.

* At this point all the statisticians need drinks.
posted by bonehead at 5:34 AM on May 26, 2015 [24 favorites]


A problem is that you need a library of existing wines and vintages to compare against.

The levels of certain chemicals are going to vary by region and vintage. Not to mention so many grapes are not actually the grapes they claim to be.
posted by JPD at 5:53 AM on May 26, 2015


The map, the database just tells you how close close needs to be. An ad hoc one with comparatively few comparison members can be built from a dozen or so samples typically, if you need to take it to court, say. The maps don't have to be perfect to be forensically useful.

The levels of certain chemicals are going to vary by region and vintage.

That's exactly what this depends on, in fact.
posted by bonehead at 5:59 AM on May 26, 2015


Don't you need to open the wine bottle to do chemical analysis?
posted by doozer_ex_machina at 6:07 AM on May 26, 2015


That's exactly what this depends on, in fact.)

Yeah! Even a bonehead knows.....

ummm...

Sorry. Yes. Bonehead is absolutely correct here.
posted by eriko at 6:08 AM on May 26, 2015 [1 favorite]


Don't you need to open the wine bottle to do chemical analysis?

A sterile needle through the cork could take enough wine for a sample.
posted by eriko at 6:09 AM on May 26, 2015


You need about a drop (~100 microlitres) to do a single analysis. A millilitre is usually more than enough. In practice, particularly for evidentiary purposes, you would likely want to sacrifice a bottle.
posted by bonehead at 6:19 AM on May 26, 2015


Just shove an RF tag in each bottle like you do with cats and dogs. That way it's easy to do the scanning all through the supply chain, at auctions, etc. All without opening the bottle or even unpacking the case.
posted by ryanrs at 6:21 AM on May 26, 2015




Just shove an RF tag in each bottle like you do with cats and dogs.

Plastic + metal in wine. Not a good idea. Maybe in a cork (some of those are plastic, but it's a specific kind), but the wine itself... nah.

Koala pee lactone! I'm going to trot that one out every time I drink a good wine in France now.
posted by fraula at 6:36 AM on May 26, 2015


The chemistry of wine has been nearly completely resolved for the better part of a decade now, that is we know more or less the majority of compounds that make up wine.

Why can't they remove the migraines then.
posted by poffin boffin at 6:44 AM on May 26, 2015 [1 favorite]


"Nearly Completely Resolved" is one of those terms that people come to regret having said.
posted by JPD at 6:48 AM on May 26, 2015 [3 favorites]


My impression is that compounds that cause hangovers are similar enough to those that make the flavour to be really hard to separate the one without damaging the other. But I'm not a wine specialist.
posted by bonehead at 6:49 AM on May 26, 2015


The map, the database just tells you how close close needs to be. An ad hoc one with comparatively few comparison members can be built from a dozen or so samples typically, if you need to take it to court, say. The maps don't have to be perfect to be forensically useful.

The diversity of grape genetics, terroirs, and growing conditions, and activity in the bottle is a magnitude or two greater than you seem to believe is all.

I have no doubt a GC and a Mass Spec can give you a perfect description of any one wine. That doesn't mean "wine chemistry is resolved"
posted by JPD at 6:50 AM on May 26, 2015 [1 favorite]


Plastic + metal in wine. Not a good idea.

Pet chips are sealed in glass.
posted by ryanrs at 7:07 AM on May 26, 2015


you have no idea how much the target audience would freak out about that. even encased in glass. Very inherently conservative.
posted by JPD at 7:09 AM on May 26, 2015


How would you make that RF chip automatically invalid upon opening the bottle? Otherwise it could be put into any other bottle.
posted by yesster at 7:12 AM on May 26, 2015 [1 favorite]


@yesster - So a forger would need to buy a genuine bottle in order to create one fake bottle? Doesn't seem cost effective.
posted by zeoslap at 7:13 AM on May 26, 2015


Ha ha, yeah. Annoying conservative wine people is what makes it funny. They gotta weigh their distaste for computer chips in their wine with the convenience of being able to buy their own scanners and verifying sealed bottles on the spot.

How would you make that RF chip automatically invalid upon opening the bottle?

What, I gotta think of everything? I'm sure something could be sorted.
posted by ryanrs at 7:15 AM on May 26, 2015


Oh, I've got it! Start a trend to make it fashionable for the drinker to swallow the chip. Then you could have forgery rings going around stealing rich people's poop.
posted by ryanrs at 7:20 AM on May 26, 2015 [3 favorites]


How would you make that RF chip automatically invalid upon opening the bottle?

Two RF chips, one in the cork and one in with the wine or embedded in the glass. Or one in a glass bead and one embedded in the bottle. Together they are read by RF detectors as a 'complete set' but when the cork is removed one is destroyed. Or you could make a spectacle of smashing the glass bead as part of the drinking/celebration. Won't ever be a 'complete set' again.
posted by carsonb at 7:21 AM on May 26, 2015


Counterfeiting obnoxiously expensive wines to cheat the ultra-rich and ultra-snobbish? I don't think I've ever heard of a criminal caper I wanted so badly to succeed.
posted by Mitrovarr at 7:21 AM on May 26, 2015 [7 favorites]


Counterfeiting obnoxiously expensive wines to cheat the ultra-rich and ultra-snobbish? I don't think I've ever heard of a criminal caper I wanted so badly to succeed.

Orson Welles had a point.
posted by carsonb at 7:24 AM on May 26, 2015


What is the boundary between the undetectable (for 'other people') and the non-existent or fabricated? (I say this as someone who attempts to appreciate a good bottle).

Vox has a neat little report on that.

Counterfeiting obnoxiously expensive wines to cheat the ultra-rich and ultra-snobbish? I don't think I've ever heard of a criminal caper I wanted so badly to succeed.

One guy did, for a good while. (Previously.)
posted by progosk at 8:04 AM on May 26, 2015


How is the upscale wine market not a kind of grift to begin with?

Wine is not particularly hard to make. It's just crushed grapes + friendly microbes + time. Once you've made the wine, you can stick it in a bottle and provided that it doesn't taste too repugnant you can charge basically whatever you want for it. You can price it nice and cheap and sell a bunch, or you can price it really high and market it for snob appeal. But either way, you still basically just have fermented/aged grape juice in a bottle, and a higher price tag does not make it "better." So really the difference is purely in the packaging, and in the amount of money you can convince somebody to pay you for it.
posted by Strange Interlude at 8:23 AM on May 26, 2015


well yes and no. Its a grift in that it has no intrinsic value, so its only worth what people will pay for it. But there is actually a limited supply. Domaine Romanee Conti can only produce less than 500 cases of Romanee Conti a year. So like 6000 bottles. And there are strict rules about what can and cannot be called Romanee Conti.

And the reality is that very very few people can charge whatever they want for it. Even if you have limited production. The actual number of cases of new production priced >$30 a bottle is really small in the context of the global wine market. And I don't mean two buck chucks. I'm talking about vineyards with just as much history as the big Burgundy guys, farmed at the same cost, and just as if not more so labor and time intense, and in many ways and in many situations better than $100 bottles, and these people would kill to sell their wine to an US distributor for 15 Euro a bottle. 99% of the worlds winemakers are just getting by.
posted by JPD at 8:39 AM on May 26, 2015 [3 favorites]


"an unusually sensitive palate that made it possible for her to discern subtleties that other people just didn’t notice"

"an active imagination"
posted by Steely-eyed Missile Man at 8:40 AM on May 26, 2015 [2 favorites]


> How is the upscale wine market not a kind of grift to begin with?

Wow, thirty comments before we got to the rote "it's all bullshit, wine is just wine" reverse-snobbery comment. Well done, MetaFilter!
posted by languagehat at 8:43 AM on May 26, 2015 [7 favorites]


Thirty one comments in an no one has said "This post makes me thirsty", or "Mmmmm... Wine... arrggh." yet. OK then, I'll be that guy: "This post makes me thirsty. Mmmmm... Wine... arrggh."
posted by ob at 8:52 AM on May 26, 2015


actually I don't want to break your heart, but within ten seconds of the post someone threw up "its just grape juice in a bottle" but the admins deleted it quickly.
posted by JPD at 8:52 AM on May 26, 2015 [1 favorite]


Wow, thirty comments before we got to the rote "it's all bullshit, wine is just wine" reverse-snobbery comment.

enjoy your old smelly grape juice you nerds!
posted by poffin boffin at 8:53 AM on May 26, 2015 [1 favorite]


Yum, smelly old grape juice!

Actually, the best grape juice I've ever had was fresh-pressed Chardonnay grapes. I don't even like Chardonney, but the juice was amazing.
posted by suelac at 9:06 AM on May 26, 2015


How is the upscale <product/> market not a kind of grift to begin with?
posted by j_curiouser at 9:07 AM on May 26, 2015


Wouldn't antifreeze present a uniquely different chromatography signature from real wine?
posted by a lungful of dragon at 9:09 AM on May 26, 2015 [1 favorite]


Is anyone else thinking about The Corkscrew Job episode of Leverage?
posted by jenfullmoon at 9:21 AM on May 26, 2015 [1 favorite]


Wow, thirty comments before we got to the rote "it's all bullshit, wine is just wine" reverse-snobbery comment.

Just in case anyone's interested in an actual rethinking of wine appreciation, I can't recommend Luca Maroni's unique approach (and methodology) highly enough.
posted by progosk at 9:33 AM on May 26, 2015 [1 favorite]


he actually sounds like he has pretty parkerized taste in wines to be honest. Though the whole "the only thing that matters should be pleasure" is certainly something to get behind. Just his vectors for pleasure are not mine.
posted by JPD at 9:56 AM on May 26, 2015


he actually sounds like he has pretty parkerized taste in wines

Maroni's reasons to put fruit center-stage are not the same as Parker's, and his ratings (online here) do not readily map to anyone else's. He certainly beanplates his tasting theorems and axioms (which is why I'm guessing it might appeal here), but interestingly enough, his guide is commonly the most appreciated by wine-shop owners here in Italy, because his method tends to single out wines that customers will spontaneously love (and therefore buy again).
posted by progosk at 10:18 AM on May 26, 2015


I'm talking about vineyards with just as much history as the big Burgundy guys, farmed at the same cost, and just as if not more so labor and time intense, and in many ways and in many situations better than $100 bottles, and these people would kill to sell their wine to an US distributor for 15 Euro a bottle. 99% of the worlds winemakers are just getting by.

----

Wow, thirty comments before we got to the rote "it's all bullshit, wine is just wine" reverse-snobbery comment.

Okay, maybe I should have clarified my stance on wine in general. I basically enjoy wine but think that people get really precious about it. I'm not saying "all-wine-is-the-same" or "all-wine-is-overpriced", but that the market for the upscale stuff is obviously inflated. I can tell the difference between a $50 bottle and 2-buck chuck, but once you go above $100/bottle, you're basically paying a premium for the same stuff with a fancier pedigree. It's a staple that marketers have trained people to see as a commodity.

I think of it in the same way as bottled water: Sure, you can pay more to get water melted from artisanally-gathered Arctic glacier ice, but it's functionally no different than purified H2O drawn from your local aquifer. Similarly, you're better-served to pay a $1.50 for a bottle of water instead of a quarter to drink from your creepy neighbor's garden hose, but are less well-served by paying $10 for a phial of fancy glacier water. The source of the water is mostly unimportant as long as it meets a certain baseline level of quality, and anything above that level is basically just an excuse for a markup.
posted by Strange Interlude at 12:05 PM on May 26, 2015


And yet we don’t call the stuff that’s in Riesling and other fruity wines “koala urine lactone.” The injustice of it!

There is actually a wine called Cat's Pee on a Gooseberry Bush.
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 12:10 PM on May 26, 2015 [1 favorite]


I can tell the difference between a $50 bottle and 2-buck chuck

Can you tell the difference between Chuck and a $10 bottle? A $10 bottle and a $25 bottle? A $25 bottle and a $50 bottle? Can you do all that in a double-blind taste test?
posted by Steely-eyed Missile Man at 12:12 PM on May 26, 2015


Can you tell the difference between Chuck and a $10 bottle? A $10 bottle and a $25 bottle? A $25 bottle and a $50 bottle? Can you do all that in a double-blind taste test?

Can't speak for others, but yeah, I probably could. I've tried it several times and never failed. And at the same time, I might be one of those fancy people making a fool of themself by not recognizing white wine with food coloring.

The differences between a 10 dollar bottle, a 50 dollar bottle and a 500 dollar bottle are much larger than the difference between a 10 dollar bottle of white and a 10 dollar bottle of red. I'm not a snob, and I can happily drink a boxed wine at a party. Also, I'm not at all willing to pay over 20 dollars for wine, even if I know the added value of paying more.

There is a lot of stupid wine snobbery, but underneath that is a reality of fine wines, produced by people who care and work hard. Same as with other products. If I were very rich, I would probably spend more on those great wines - and maybe I would spend time finding the ones I like the best. I would not care much about ratings and fame - because there is definitely a problem with price/quality for some wines. But if I could, I would pay for quality.
posted by mumimor at 1:15 PM on May 26, 2015 [2 favorites]


> I basically enjoy wine but think that people get really precious about it.

Of course you do, and there are many, many like you—check out any previous MeFi wine thread. And of course people get precious about it, just as they do about every other activity humans invest themselves in. People get precious about sports and movies and language and, well, fill in the blank. And it can be fun to pop into a conversation about any of those things, where people who know and care about them are enjoying a discussion, and holler "You numbskulls are overthinking a plate of [whatever]!" But it's basically the same fun as is to be had in trolling, and it's destructive of conversation. Look at this:

> Can you tell the difference between Chuck and a $10 bottle? A $10 bottle and a $25 bottle? A $25 bottle and a $50 bottle? Can you do all that in a double-blind taste test?

That's a shitty way to participate in a conversation; it's exactly like popping into a religion thread and dropping a sub-Dawkins turd about how God doesn't exist and if you think he does you're a moron. If you think fancy wine is overpriced, congratulations, you're saving yourself money and getting to feel superior! But for the love of MeFi, please stay out of conversations about it, because you're annoying people and wasting everyone's time.
posted by languagehat at 2:15 PM on May 26, 2015 [6 favorites]


I'm not sure if I can tell the difference between supermarket wine and any of the DRC wines, but I would be more than happy to find out if somebody wants to stake me.
posted by borges at 2:22 PM on May 26, 2015 [3 favorites]


"Is anyone else thinking about The Corkscrew Job episode of Leverage?
posted by jenfullmoon"

Yup and thought of this episode.
posted by clavdivs at 5:52 PM on May 26, 2015


Can you tell the difference between Chuck and a $10 bottle? A $10 bottle and a $25 bottle? A $25 bottle and a $50 bottle?
That's can be tough as there is a wide spread in quality within each price point. (The correlation between price and quality is poor at best.)
But between a <$5 wine and a $50 wine - no problem whatsoever.
posted by speug at 6:24 PM on May 26, 2015


it's exactly like popping into a religion thread and dropping a sub-Dawkins turd about how God doesn't exist and if you think he does you're a moron

No, not really. There haven't been plenty of blind taste tests that demonstrate that even expert God-tasters can't reliably tell the difference between expensive God and inexpensive God.

please stay out of conversations about it, because you're annoying people and wasting everyone's time

Nah.
posted by Steely-eyed Missile Man at 9:37 PM on May 26, 2015 [1 favorite]


I can tell you, inexpensive gods taste like sour grapes and chalk, esp. when frothing like Bacchus for effect.
posted by clavdivs at 10:20 PM on May 26, 2015 [1 favorite]


please stay out of conversations about it, because you're annoying people and wasting everyone's time

Not wasting my time. I agree with them.
posted by laptolain at 12:13 AM on May 27, 2015


> Not wasting my time. I agree with them.

Really? That's all it takes for you to feel fulfilled, reading a comment you agree with? Huh. Well, I consider my time wasted if I'm not learning anything or experiencing anything interesting, and that's the case with predictable comments that don't add anything useful. Similarly, some/many atheists enjoy reading those "God doesn't exist, you dummies!" comments in religion threads, but so what? They're still destructive of conversation.

> Nah.

I can't make you, but I wish you'd reconsider. What exactly do you think you're accomplishing, Opening the Heathens' Eyes to The TRUTH? GYOB, as they say. If people are enjoying talking about something you think is silly, you have two choices: let them talk, which is the mature/polite choice, or interrupt with your TRUTH, which is childish/shitty. Take your pick, but realize what you're doing.
posted by languagehat at 8:13 AM on May 27, 2015 [3 favorites]


Can you tell the difference between Chuck and a $10 bottle? A $10 bottle and a $25 bottle? A $25 bottle and a $50 bottle?

This is one place the science can really help. There's been a ton of work recently on tying the various compounds we can now access with better instruments to human perception. Tasters are instrumental in understanding how to group compounds into flavours and aroma notes, what factors are important in identifying seasonality and terroir, and so on. The chemistry can then feed back into calibrating the tasters as well, by developing reference wine aroma and flavour kits built of pure compounds (where possible) or wine isolates.

It's a really interesting field right now. In only the past decade or so, the analytical chemistry is finally up to the task of being able to get at many of the groupings of human perception, and understanding what particular groups of chemicals can produce different sensations for wine drinkers. I think the immediate results of this will be to really help vinters to produce better blending and aging strategies for their wines, and growers to better understand the effects of weather and terroir on their crops. As i said above, it's really becoming an important part of quality control for wineries. It also has the side benefit of making counterfeiting much harder.
posted by bonehead at 9:05 AM on May 27, 2015 [3 favorites]


IMO, it's also important to understand that this new way of understanding wine composition does not, in any way take away from the art of winemaking. It, in fact, provides a better pallet and feedback to the farmers and the vintners.

We've understood how colour in pigment works now for the better part of a century. Painters now have access to a broader range of colours and more durable, light-fast paints than any other time in history. That doesn't take away from the fact that a great painting needs a master painter to put it on canvas.

Great wines are still going to need farmers who understand their fields and the grapes, vinters who understand flavours, and blends and aging and how the human nose and tongue respond. The chemistry just gives them more tools to do so.
posted by bonehead at 9:50 AM on May 27, 2015 [2 favorites]




bonehead the problem is that the empirical evidence in the form of the UC-Davis enology program is that once you try to turn wine making into a science it becomes an industrial process that selects for certain characteristics.

There is a big backlash against all of that.

Its one of those things that should be awesome, but ends up not being awesome.
posted by JPD at 6:47 AM on May 28, 2015


Like the results in the C&EN article reproducing wine flavour with only 35 or so compounds. No doubt someone will be industrializing wine-flavoured "spritzers" or perfumes or liquorice or something soon.

Anything can be used badly. Convenience and fast foods owe more to the flavour chemical reactors in New Jersey than any fruit or vegetable. However, that same food science allows for molecular gastronomy. Grant Achatz and Heston Blumenthal couldn't do what they do without it. It's taken a generation or so for the art to understand and incorporate the new technologies, but I'd rather live in a world with both Coke and the Fat Duck than not.
posted by bonehead at 7:51 AM on May 28, 2015 [1 favorite]


Well actually I think most of the MG stuff that has leaked its way into top kitchens is also incredibly problematic. Especially when done at just a touch off the best practitioners.
posted by JPD at 7:56 AM on May 28, 2015


Problematic?
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 8:49 AM on May 28, 2015


yes. But we've had this conversation before. We disagree with one another.
posted by JPD at 10:12 AM on May 28, 2015


Ah. Well I suppose movies went downhill when they started using colour.
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 10:20 AM on May 28, 2015


yes. exactly the same thing.
posted by JPD at 12:04 PM on May 28, 2015


Well yeah, actually. A friend of mine does the same thing and it's equally tiresome; they have this notion that technological advance (in all sorts of areas--digital vs film, modernist cuisine, cellphones, all sorts of stuff) reached some Platonic ideal at some point and should have stopped there. Any development afterwards is bad and impure.

The fact that an advance can be used poorly isn't an argument against the technology. Knowing more, on a chemical/molecular level, about how the truly delicious wines are constructed is really no different than carpenters moving from plumb bobs to laser levels. It allows for a greater degree of precision; it allows the creative people more tools to implement their visions.
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 12:07 PM on May 28, 2015


or it ends up in a sea of uniformly cooked, flavorless chicken and pork.
posted by JPD at 10:48 AM on May 29, 2015


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