Four Decades: 1986-1995 Page 2

Wine Fraud on a Presidential Scale

In the 1980s, former German music publisher Hardy Rodenstock was one of the world's most renowned wine collectors and merchants, known for arranging extravagant tastings as well as for his uncanny ability to find rare wines. The most astonishing such find was the purported unearthing of a stash of late-18th century Bordeaux in a walled-up cellar in Paris, the bottles engraved with the initials "Th. J.," which would be taken as an indication that they'd belonged to U.S. President Thomas Jefferson.

Bottles that supposedly belonged to Thomas Jefferson turned out to be fakes.
CJ Walker
The "Jefferson bottles" turned out to be fakes.

The first to be sold at auction, a "1787 Lafitte," went to Forbes magazine's Malcolm and Christopher Forbes in December 1985 for more than $150,000. In 1988, American businessman William Koch bought four of the Jefferson bottles for a total of around $400,000. Out-of-the-ordinary sums, certainly, but indicative of the direction the fine-wine auction market was headed; today, wine auctions are a $350 million a year industry.

There were doubters of the bottles' authenticity from the start, but Christie's auctions authenticated them, and Forbes and Koch were convinced enough to spend six figures. But in 2005, an inventory of Koch's collection revealed very little evidence to support the bottles' authenticity. Officials at the Thomas Jefferson Foundation didn't think they belonged to its namesake. An engraving expert said the bottle markings were made with modern tools, and Koch's investigators claim to have found the engravers in Germany, who they say admitted to using a dentist's drill.

Lawsuits aplenty followed, though due to statutes of limitation and jurisdiction issues, no rulings have ever been issued against Rodenstock or Christie's in regard to the Jefferson bottles. A 2008 book on the subject, Benjamin Wallace's Billionaire's Vinegar, has been optioned for a movie; Matthew McConaughey will reportedly star.

Phylloxera Strikes California

Vines that were susceptible to phylloxera were burned en masse.
Jerry Alexander/Cephas
Susceptible vines were burned en masse.

In the late 19th century, the phylloxera root louse decimated the vineyards of Europe, thwarted in the nick of time by the discovery that the noble but vulnerable Vitis vinifera vines could be saved by grafting them onto the roots of phylloxera-resistanct native North American species.

Fast-forward about 100 years, and most of California's vineyards—as much as 75 percent in Napa and Sonoma—are planted on the AxR1 rootstock, a hybrid whose parentage was half-Vitis vinifera. Despite its failure in France in the early 20th century, it was the most popular choice in California, based partially on the recommendation of viticultural experts at the University of California, Davis, the premier enology program of the Western Hemisphere. But in the late 1980s, phylloxera developed a taste for AxR1.

Unfortunately for vintners, you can't comb out phylloxera. The only way to rid a vineyard of lice is to rip out the vines and replant on properly resistant rootstocks; the infestation ended up costing the California wine industry more than $1 billion.

A 1986 ad for Bordeaux's Mouton-Cadet
Authentic-Originals/Alamy Stock Photos
This 1986 ad for Bordeaux's Mouton-Cadet played to Americans' taste for Old World sophistication and big hair.

Tainted System

The semi-vague concept of "corked" wine wasn't new in the 1980s—it had long been used as a catch-all term for wines that smelled musty, moldy or somehow "off." And it's still used to describe wines tainted by myriad culprits. But in 1982, Swiss scientists announced they'd identified the No. 1 offender: a chemical compound called 2,4,6-trichloroanisole, aka TCA.

A diagram of the structure of a TCA molecule
The structure of a TCA molecule

Curiously, the incidences of corked wines had been anecdotally on the rise throughout the modern winemaking era, despite the fact that winemakers were taking ever more efforts to ensure their cellars were clean. Ironically, they were exacerbating the problem: TCA forms when fungus comes into contact with chlorophenol compounds—the kind you might find in, say, chlorine bleach. Rather than preventing taint by cleaning corks with bleach, vintners were encouraging it.

Problem solved? Not quite. Wineries continued to use chlorine bleach to clean their equipment, cellar floors and even barrels. TCA was systemically infecting entire wineries, getting into the wine before the wine ever touched a cork. The nature of cellaring wine prior to release meant some of these issues went undetected for years, but by the 1990s, many wineries were completely overhauling cellars.

Today, peroxide- and ozone-based cleaning routines are the industry standards.

Four Decades: 1986-1995 Page 2