Using Technology to Prevent Wine Fraud

Last August, Rudy Kurniawan was fined $48 million and sentenced to 10 years in prison.  His crime: making and selling counterfeit wine.  For years, he had been buying and selling millions of dollars of collectible wines.  It turns out he was actually inflating prices, forging labels and refilling bottles in his kitchen.

The most expensive bottle of wine ever sold at auction – attributed to 18th-century American statesman Thomas Jefferson and authenticated by Christie’s Auction House – turned out to be counterfeit.

Wine is a $60 billion annual global business.  Yet a recent French study found that more than 20 percent of exported wines may be counterfeit.  Some estimate that more than 5 percent of wine sold at auction is similarly fraudulent.  How do you know if you have bought a fake bottle?  That’s the $60 billion question.

Experts have proposed a number of methods to validate wine.  One measures the X-rays emitted as a result of exposure to a high-energy ion beam from a particle accelerator.  Another measures the amount of atmospheric radioactive carbon dioxide the grapes absorb from the atomic bomb tests of the 1950s.  Needless to say, these methods are both costly and involved.

Recently, scientists from Argentina and the University of California at Davis tested a new method using an Agilent gas chromatograph, mass spec detector and ChemStation software.  They determined that Malbec wines produced in Argentina and California – despite being made by the same winemaker and using the same protocol – had distinct molecular signatures.  There were compositional differences related to variance in altitude, precipitation and growing days.

This research  helps experts to “fingerprint” specific wines.  It may also help growers to produce better-tasting wines in the future.


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