5 Wine Scandal And Crime Stories For Your Next Wine Night

When you think of wine, you often don’t think of multi-million dollar fraud, terrorism, poisoning and counterfeit labels — but the industry has plenty of that. Wine, unlike many other expensive collector’s items, is often overlooked for security, but when bottles can auction for more than $100,000 a piece, there’s a lot of illegitimate money to be made in the industry. This isn’t new, criminals have targeted the wine industry for millennia, and many of them get away with it, but here are some stories from those who didn’t.

Kurniawan’s Wine Counterfeiting

When a man named Rudy Kurniawan showed up in LA, he was in his twenties with a large sum of wealth — or at least that’s what the many people he had over assumed. Fine wine flowed endlessly at Kuriniawan’s house, and he seemed to be an amazing collector. At one point, he sold $24.7 million of wine at an auction. There was just one problem — the wine he was selling didn’t exist.

His bottles of Close St Denis from Domaine Ponsot from 1945 to 1971 were selling for small fortunes at auctions, but the head of the Domaine, Laurent Ponsot, found that to be impossible. Close St Denis was first made in 1982. Billionaire collector Bill Koch also had his doubts and hired private investigators to get more information. In 2012, the FBI got involved and raided Kurniawan’s house. Inside they found a full counterfeiting operation. Kurniawan wasn’t rich or a great collector — he just knew how to dupe people with a taste for expensive wine.

While this was the first time someone has gone to prison in the US for wine fraud, it’s certainly not the only time this crime has been committed.

Jefferson Wines

Imagine for a moment that you’re a billionaire wine collector. You enjoy drinking fine wine almost as much as you enjoy having a fully stocked cellar. You go to wine auctions and buy some of the most expensive and historic wines ever known. One time in the ‘80s, you picked up a few bottles of the most expensive wine ever sold: initialled bottles of wine from Thomas Jefferson. Decades later, there’s only one problem: these bottles of wine aren’t from Jefferson at all. This is exactly what happened to Florida billionaire Bill Koch.

With the means to pursue the case, Koch decided to investigate. It turns out the initials Th.J. had been engraved with an electric power tool. While the case was never closed (the original German producer adamantly claims he’s innocent), Koch discovered that many of the wines in his collection were counterfeits, a common occurrence in the wine industry.

Wine Terrorism

Ah, what’s better than a glass of French wine? The history melds with the flavor as you picture an idyllic French countryside and the loving work of the winemaker. The only problem is that that same winemaker could be a member of Comité Régional d’Action Viticole (CRAV) an extremist organization known for setting offices on fire and making dangerous threats. Cheap, mass-produced table wine imported to France from Spain, Italy, and the New World, costs about half of what French table wine costs. The CRAV claims this threatens their centuries-old French winemaking tradition and warrants terrorist actions.

Usually, members of the CRAV stick to dumping out thousands of litres of imported wine. They act at night with masks on and are known to vandalize with threats and demands to raise imported wine prices. Most of their demands are impossible for the French government since they would go against European trade agreements. The group has been active for over 100 years.

Deadly Italian Wine

1986 was “the worst year in the Italian wine industry in the [1900s]” according to wine magazine publisher Guido Scialpi. The reason? 24 people died from wine laced with a lethal amount of methanol — 5.7% to be exact, well above the legal 0.3% permitted. Multiple people were arrested, and more than 4.4 million gallons of wine were dumped during the preceding. It seems like certain wine distributors wanted to increase profits by increasing alcohol content. At the time, part of the wine price was determined by alcohol levels, and instead of ethyl alcohol, a natural component of wine, methyl alcohol was added, which can cause blindness and death.

The deadly wine scandal sent shock waves around the industry, and France, West Germany, and Denmark destroyed or even banned Italian beverages as Italy scrambled to tighten wine control measures.

Austria’s Diethylene Glycolysis Scandal

If you haven’t enjoyed a bottle of Austrian wine before, it’s likely because of a 1985 scandal that took the industry over a decade to recover from. When noble rot affected the vineyards of Austria, producers rushed to make their contracts with West German companies. At the time, sweet and semi-sweet wines were mostly being ordered, and the wine that was being produced was too dry.

You can’t add sweetener to wine, so it’s thought that big wine producers hired wine chemists to figure out how they could improve the sweetness and body of the wine illegally so that they could meet their contracts. Diethylene Glycolysis, a component of some anti-freeze, seemed to be the answer. In smalscl doses, it would improve the sweetness and body of the wine so that they could meet their contracts.

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Not only was this illegal, but the amounts found in the bottles could also be lethal or unhealthy depending on how much was drunk and for how long. When the German health minister discovered this, Austrian wine was completely banned. Austrian authorities started investigating and eventually prosecuted the people who were to blame. 37 million bottles of wine were destroyed — almost all the wine that had been produced in Austria that year. Now Austria has much stricter quality controls for their wine.

Want to read more? Try these books!

Napa Valley Case Files- Justice in Wine Country (True Crime) Tangled Vines- Greed, Murder, Obsession, and an Arsonist in the Vineyards of California

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Categories: Lists, This Day in Wine History | ArticlesTags: , , , By Published On: February 19, 2023Last Updated: February 28, 2024

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