How Atomic Particles Helped Solve A Wine Fraud Mystery : The Salt By testing for radiation, detectives tried to show that wine bottles purportedly from Thomas Jefferson's collection were fake. And with wine fraud rising, authentication is getting more sophisticated.
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How Atomic Particles Helped Solve A Wine Fraud Mystery

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How Atomic Particles Helped Solve A Wine Fraud Mystery

How Atomic Particles Helped Solve A Wine Fraud Mystery

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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Next we have the results of an investigation. The project we call Hidden Kitchens reports on counterfeit wine. Selling plain, old wine as some special vintage is a lucrative form of fraud targeting some very wealthy collectors.


And now the Kitchen Sisters, Davia Nelson and Nikki Silva, introduce us to some unique detectives. They specialize in verifying vintage wines.

INSKEEP: Our story starts with a French physicist working a mile underground. He's testing wine for signs of radioactivity, which would suggest it was made after the first atomic bombs were detonated.

PHILIPPE HUBERT: I take the bottle in hand. I put the bottle close to the detector. Then I close the shielding, and we start to recall the gamma rays. We are looking for radioactivity in the wine. Most of the time, the collectors send me bottles of wine because they want to know if it is fake or not.

MAUREEN DOWNEY: I use razor blades, magnifying glasses, flashlights, blue light - a lot of wine labels will fluoresce under a blue light. My name is Maureen Downey, wine detective. Counterfeit wines have become a much bigger problem of late. In the last year, I myself have written reports for about $5 million worth of fakes.

JANCIS ROBINSON: Fraudsters put a lot of work into trying to make their corks looked distressed. It's important that the label looks as though it's been around the block a bit, and so they might rub it with a bit of earth or coffee grounds.

PATRICK RADDEN KEEFE: There are two ways to counterfeit wine. You're either messing with what's in the bottle, or you're messing with the bottle itself. My name is Patrick Radden Keefe. I'm a staff writer at The New Yorker magazine. I wrote a story called the "Jefferson Bottles."

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: At Christie's Wine Department, it is our mission to bring the very best of wines from around the world to you and your wine cellar.

KEEFE: In 1985, there was a wine auction at Christie's in London, at which they auctioned a bottle of the Lafite - one of the finest vineyards in France. It was a very old bottle inscribed in a spindly hand with 1787 Lafite and the letters T, H, J. Christie said that evidence suggested that this bottle came from a collection of old French wines, which had belonged to Thomas Jefferson. That bottle sold for $157,000 to the collector, Malcolm Forbes - the most expensive bottle of wine ever sold at the auction. At the time, he said it's more fun then the opera glasses Lincoln was holding when he was shot, and we have those, too. Wine collectors jockey to get a hold of other Jefferson bottles from this mysterious collection. One of these collectors was Bill Koch. His brothers are often known as the Koch brothers. Bill Koch purchased four of these bottles in the late 1980s for about half a million dollars.

LUCIA STANTON: I'm Lucia Stanton. I was senior historian at Monticello for over 30 years. All of us at Monticello, at that time, were very skeptical about any connection between Jefferson and these wine bottles. Jefferson carefully had the wines that he had purchased in France shipped to this country for himself and President George Washington. In his vast records, over 60,000 documents, there was nothing that suggested that Jefferson had ever ordered any of these wines. There were about a dozen bottles - 1784 and '87 Chateau d'Yquem, 1787 Lafite, a Margaux. Most of them were 1787s, which is a vintage Jefferson never ordered in his life.

KEEFE: When Koch realized that he had potentially been crossed, he has Jim Elroy, a former FBI agent - kind of genial bloodhound of a guy. He said to Elroy, saddle up. And Elroy did.

JIM ELROY: My name is Jim Elroy, retired special agent with the FBI.

KEEFE: The ringtone on Elroy's phone is the whistled theme to "The Good, the Bad and the Ugly."

ELROY: I've identified the perpetrator as a guy by the name of Hardy Rodenstock. Actually, his true name was Meinhard Gorke.

ROBINSON: Hardy, I met quite a few times. He was a great fixture on the European fine wine circuit. I'm Jancis Robinson. I write about wine for and for The Financial Times. Hardy supposedly found the Jefferson bottles in a bricked up cellar in Paris, but he couldn't give any more details. He was never specific about exactly how many bottles there were.

KEEFE: Jim Elroy had a hunch that the wine in the Jefferson bottles did not date to the 18th century.

ELROY: I started looking in Scientific American, and I found an article that Philippe Hubert, a French physicist, had written about using low-level gamma ray detection for Cesium 137 to date wine. Cesium 137 did not exist on this planet until we exploded the first atomic devices.

HUBERT: The Cesium radioactivity we find in the wines reflect exactly the history of the atomic age. I'm Philippe Hubert, physicist working at the University of Bordeaux. First, you had the development of the nuclear bomb, Hiroshima and Nagasaki. And then in the '50s or the '60s, the Cold War between the U.S. and Soviet and nuclear atmospheric tests. And then in 1986, the Chernobyl accident, which released a lot of Cesium activity in the atmosphere.


UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: The Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant has detected a record level of radioactive Cesium in groundwater.

HUBERT: This radioactivity, it's everywhere, everywhere. Then with the rain, this radioactivity falls on the grapes. When you make the wine, this comes into the wine and stays into the wine. If I see Cesium in a bottle of, let's say 1900, it is sure that it is a fake.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: The feds have put a cork in a vintage crime with the conviction of wine wiz, Rudy Kurniawan, a connoisseur of counterfeiting, who mastered label-making cork-stamping...

DOWNEY: Counterfeiting wine is not new. King Louis XIV had a royal decree that all of the wine barrels coming from the Cotes du Rhone area had to be stopped CDR to prove that they were Cotes du Rhone. The Thomas Jefferson bottles - Bill Koch's investigators found the people in Germany who engraved the T and the J into the bottle using modern dentist tools that could not possibly have existed in the time of Thomas Jefferson. One expert likens it to Abraham Lincoln holding an iPhone. When you've got Abraham Lincoln in a photograph holding an iPhone, we've got a problem.

INSKEEP: One of those truisms of wine detection. The story was produced by the Kitchen Sisters and Jim McKee. You can inspect the Jefferson bottles for yourself and meet the physicist who tested them at

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