Thomas Jefferson may well have been America's first great wine connoisseur, according to a 2007 article in The New Yorker about the growing epidemic of wine fraud. See, Jefferson spent several years as Minister to France from 1785 until the French Revolution broke out and every sane foreign diplomat fled for this life, Jefferson included. (Jen-Luc Piquant begs to differ; she has some wild pet theory that Jefferson was the Scarlet Pimpernel, no matter how often I point out that this personage is entirely fictional. But she loves that old Leslie Howard movie — "They seek him here/They seek him there/Those Frenchies seek him everywhere" — and won't hear reason.) While he lived there, though, he developed a taste for French wine, particularly of the Bordeaux variety.
So when he got back to America, Jefferson started importing large quantities of Bordeaux from France for himself and his good buddy, George Washington. (If the Scarlet Pimpernel had been intent on smuggling all the good wine out of France, rather than the doomed aristocracy, Jen-Luc's pet theory might hold water.) According to the New Yorker article, in his first term as President, "Jefferson spent $7500 — roughly $120,000 in today's currency — on wine…." Can you say "pork-barrel spending"? Although in fairness, he probably didn't use taxpayer's money to stock his own private wine cellar. He did like to show off his knowledge, though, much to the dismay of certain dinner guests, like John Quincy Adams, who noted in a 1807 diary entry, "There was, as usual, a dissertation upon wines. Not very edifying."
Jefferson, at least, seemed to genuinely know something about wine. The same cannot be said, apparently, for Christopher Forbes (son of billionaire Malcolm Forbes), who in 1985 paid a whopping $157,000 for a dusty old bottle of 1787 Lafitte at a Christie's auction. At least it was purported to be a 1787 Lafitte; the bottle had no label and had supposedly been discovered "behind a bricked-up cellar wall in an old building in Paris." But it was etched with the initials "Th.J.," evidence, said Christie's Michael Broadbent, that the bottle had once been part of Jefferson's stash. That's what made it worth six figures to Forbes, who said of his purchase, "It's more fun than the opera glasses Lincoln was holding when he was shot, and we have those, too."
The problem is that the bottle was a fake, as were the other bottles in that secret stash sold to other "serious collectors." (Jen-Luc says this is code for "really rich people with more money than sense," although I would love to be able to afford some vintage scientific instruments or weaponry, for example, so I think she's being a bit harsh and over-general with her definition.) And Christie's should have known it, since Broadbent had inquired of Monticello's scholarly experts in 1985 about references to wine in Jefferson's letters. Historian Cinder Goodwin, who specialized in Jeffersonian papers, told Broadbent that neither Jefferson's daily account book, letters, bank statements or French custom forms made any mention of 1787 vintages.
Furthermore, while Jefferson had instructed that his initials be engraved on wine bottles imported from France, he used a colon ("Th:J."), not a period ("Th.J.). Her conclusion: while the bottles might be authentically 18th century, there was no specific connection with Jefferson to be found in the historical record. But per the New Yorker article, in Broadbent's eyes, "the sensory experience of consuming a bottle of wine trumped historical evidence."
Ah, such hubris! There have actually been many studies of blind taste tests using wine; in some cases, even the "experts" couldn't tell the difference between a red and white wine, never mind different varieties or vintages. The New Yorker article specifically mentions Frederic Brochet, who as a PhD student in oenology at the University of Bordeaux, conducted a study demonstrating that our perception of a "good wine" is highly influenced by whether we believe it to be expensive and of high quality beforehand.
Brochet first served his 57 subjects a moderately-priced red Bordeaux from a bottle whose label identified it as a common French table wine. The next week, he served them the exact same wine from a bottle with a label identifying it as a grand cru (a remarkably fine and expensive bottle). The participants described the first bottle as "simple," "unbalanced," and "weak," and the second bottle as "complex", "balanced," and "full." (Jen-Luc thinks they showed a pronounced lack of descriptive imagination, in addition to being fooled by the blind taste test.)
In a recent post at The Frontal Cortex, Jonah Lehrer mentions an article in Men's Vogue about a bunch of real estate moguls who get together to drink ridiculously expensive wine, often consuming as much as $30,000 worth in a single evening. (Note to those real estate moguls: I like a really nice bottle of wine with dinner as much as the next person, but if you're dropping thirty grand on wine for dinner, I don't want to hear you whining about having to pay higher taxes ever again. You could feed a family of five for a year on that.) Jonah writes in the same post about an experiment at Caltech, where 20 people sampled five different bottles of Cabernet Sauvignons identified only by their retail price, ranging from $5 to $90. In fact, there were only three different wines, so sometimes the same wine would randomly appear twice, only with a significant difference in price. And of course, the subjects invariably rated what they deemed the "more expensive" wine higher in terms of taste than the wine they thought was cheaper.
Why do we do this? Jonah has a theory about that, too. See, the participants in the Caltech study tasted their wines while inside an fMRI machine. That's the form of brain imaging that measures increased blood flow in key areas of the brain during any activity, thereby enabling researchers to see which specific parts of the brain light up during specific activities. In the Caltech study, several different brain regions were involved, but only one seemed to respond specifically to the price of the win, and not the wine itself: the orbitofrontal cortex (OFC). The OFC got way more excited by the prospect of the $90 wine than the humble $5 wine. The working hypothesis is that "the activity of this brain region shifted the preferences of the wine tasters."
In short: we are very easily fooled by subjective things like pricing and snazzy labels. That's why some of the bolder wine forgers — and it is a burgeoning industry — will work with genuine labeled bottles and simply refill the empties with a cheaper wine and re-cork them, confident that the "status-conscious buyer" will never taste the difference. In China, the crooks are selling fake bottles of 1982 Lafitte (an acclaimed vintage), and in 2000, Italian authorities busted several people involved in the illegal sale of 20,000 bottles of fake 1995 Sassicaia (a Tuscan red wine much in demand by serious connoisseurs). The ringleader was selling the fake wine out of the back of his Peugeot, which should have been a dead giveaway to buyers that he wasn't exactly on the up-and-up.
Wine forgery has gotten so prevalent that last year the FBI opened an investigation into the counterfeiting of old and rare vintages. It's also become something of a joke. The head of Sotheby's wine department jokes in the New Yorker article that "more 1945 Mouton was consumed on the 50th anniversary of the vintage, in 1995, than was ever produced to being with." Wealthy US and Asian consumers seem to be most status-conscious, and hence most vulnerable to fraud, but even among supposed experts, there is some fairly damning evidence that perhaps the emperor has no clothes. Via Ed Brayton, I learned that the editors of Wine Spectator inadvertently granted a prestigious award to a non-existent restaurant with a wine list featuring overpriced bottles of what the magazine had previously panned as particularly bad wines. Hey, it could happen to anyone. (It was a very elaborate hoax, but come on — if you haven't actually been to a restaurant and sampled its offerings, you've got no business giving it an award.)
Along with the prevalence of wine fraud, however, there is also an emerging field in wine forensics, whose practitioners are drawing more and more on a variety of physics-based analysis techniques to measure and characterize wine. For instance, French physicist Philippe Hubert devised a way to test the age of wine without opening the bottle using low-frequency gamma rays. This can tell the researcher if cesium 137 is present, an uncommon radioactive isotope that is a product of nuclear fallout. If a wine has been bottled before the beginning of atmospheric nuclear testing, it won't have any cesium 137; if it does, it is (a) not very old, and (b) given the 30-year half life of the isotope, it's possible to make a reasonably precise estimate of its age. (The technique is useless for older bottles of wine, but can help uncover obvious fraud if someone is trying to pass newer wine off as an older vintage.)
Via Physics Buzz comes word that French scientists have teamed up with a London-cased wine dealer called The Antique Wine Company to develop a new method to help authenticate wines using particle accelerators. The new technique determines the age of the glass of the wine bottle by analyzing the x-rays emitted when the bottles are zapped with ion beams, and it can make the determination without having to open to bottle or otherwise taint the wine. It turns out that vintage wine bottles have telltale "fingerprints" from the time period in which they were manufactured, so the researchers at the National Center for Scientific Research can compare their results with a database filled with information on Bordeaux-region bottles dating back to the 19th century.
The New Yorker article correctly says that "There are no scientific tests that can reliably determine the grape varietals in a bottle of wine," but there is a nifty high-tech way to determine whether a vintage bottle has gone bad or not. After all, there is nothing more embarrassing than giving a dinner party, uncorking your finest vintage, and discovering it's pretty much turned to vinegar unfit even for use as a light vinaigrette over the starter salad. Tom at Swans on Tea pointed me to a new technique using nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy to measure the levels of acetic acid per liter down to the tenth of a gram. Basically, a wine is considered spoiled once it hits 1.4 grams of acetic acid per liter. (Vinegar, in case you're curious, has around 12.5 grams per liter, but then, one doesn't drink it straight from the bottle, either.)
Finally, European scientists announced their prototype handheld electronic tongue last month. It's similar to an electronic nose, the latest example of electronic sensing technologies that have been developed over the last decade in an attempt to reproduce human senses using sensor arrays and pattern recognition software. An electronic nose must be trained, of course, to build up a database of samples for future reference. It can then recognize new samples by comparing those volatile compound fingerprints with those already in the database. Last year, researchers at the University of Warwick and Leicester University announced they had developed a kind of artificial snot to significantly enhance the odor-sensing capabilities of electronic noses and enable them to pick out a more diverse range of smells. Apparently our own natural nasal mucus dissolves scents and separates out different odor molecules based on when they arrive at nasal receptors. Who knew? The artificial version is a 10-micron thick layer of polymer.
But I digress. We were talking about the electronic tongue. Researchers at the University of Texas, Austin, designed an early electronic tongue ten years ago. They attached four well-known chemical sensors to a type of polymer microbeads used to synthesize DNA and its proteins, and mounted the whole shebang on a silicon wafer with carefully micromachined wells. Those wells were designed to mimic the human tongue's many cavities, which contain our test buds (nature's chemical receptors). Each microbead serves as a taste bud, via a sensor that responded to a specific chemical by changing color. For instance one turned yellow if there were high acidity. The resulting unique color combinations could be analyzed by a camera-on-a-chip connected to a computer database to analyze for several different chemical components simultaneously.
The newer handheld version of the electronic tongue was invented by Cecilia Jimenez-Jorquera and colleagues at the Barcelona Institute of Microelectronics in Spain, after wine industry specialists complained they had no quick, easy way to assess the quality of wines without having to send the bottles to a special laboratory facility. So Jimenez-Jorquera and Company devised an electronic tongue that can identify the grape variety and vintage at the press of a button. Six different sensors detect substances associated with specific varieties of wine by measuring things like acid, sugar and alcohol. Because it's handheld, it's portable enough for use in the field. This could really be a game-changer for wine forensics. Fraudulent sellers, beware!