Top 10 wine scandals

  1. Austria and antifreeze

The celebrated “antifreeze scandal” (the wine trade has, thankfully, refrained from fixing “gate” to every case of wrong-doing in its history, unlike the mainstream media) of 1985 saw Austrian producers mixing diethylene glycol to increase their wines’ sweetness.

A limited number of Austrian wineries, mostly committed to bulk wine production, hit upon the idea of using the chemical in their wines to boost its sweetness before it was sent to Germany to be bottled, either as Austrian wine or, on occasion, mixed in with bulk German wine.

The ruse was discovered when one of the producers claimed for unusually large quantities of the stuff on his tax return bills and its presence was also confirmed by German laboratory tests.

The news made headlines around the world especially as diethylene glycol is often used in antifreeze.

Long-term consumption of the chemical is indeed very dangerous but the quantities involved in this particular case would have necessitated the uninterrupted drinking of dozens of bottles over several days to achieve lethal results.

Only one bottle, a Welschriesling Beerenauslese from Burgenland, exceeded the 40 grams needed for such an eventuality.

Still, Austrian wine exports crashed overnight from 45 million litres a year to just 4.4m and some countries banned imports altogether.

As an example of how a bad thing can lead to good, however, Austria’s years in the wilderness forced it to clean up its act, focus on winemaking and cut down on bulk wine.

Stricter wine laws were introduced and its re-emergence in recent years with the likes of Grüner Veltliner is an example to all.

12 Responses to “Top 10 wine scandals”

  1. RentCaine says:

    What happened to all of the Red Burgundy blended with Rhone and Algerian wine for decades or more?

  2. Rupert Millar says:

    @RentCaine I gave it a mention near the bottom when talking about the same thing happening in Bordeaux. I was a bit hard-pressed to find any solid examples in the time I had to write this. If you know of any books or articles that cover the subject let me know and I’ll be happy to add a little bit extra.

  3. Rupert – you seem to be missing a few.
    What about the Ponsot wines that were never made that Acker refused to pull from an auction, until Laurent Ponsot walked into the auction room? The consignor has still never coffed up the source of the wines. And what of the dismissal of the producers personal claim to the auction house that the wines weren’t made in moving forward with the sale? In any other industry some oversight might have resulted in a different outcome than – nothing.
    That is about as blatant as it gets: Producer says wine never made, auction house dismisses the communication and proceeds with sale until producer walks into the room, consignor refuses to reveal source.

    There are plenty more. I see them, and the very fake wines traded as a result almost monthly. But no one really seems to care. And those who perpetrate the fraud are still thriving in business and have even maintained reputable standing in the industry….

    I think the biggest scandal – is the lack of scandal. The lack of investigation, and lack of prosecution. The lack of spine in the industry to stand up to the fraudsters and stop the commerce of fake wines. The lack of caring by guys that have been defrauded out of millions – but wont admit it so they can save face & keep thier seats at the big party tables. This denial is the biggest scandal of all.

  4. Bob Scharpf says:

    Nearly all the scandals seem to occur in Europe. I am pleased to see that California has not make the top ten. In fact, what if any are wine scandals that have been reported from the wine regions of the West Coast? There must be some.

  5. Bob Scharpf says:

    No reply

  6. Rupert Millar says:

    @Maureen I quite agree. As for the Acker auction I had forgotten about that and I accept that some scandals will be missing (that’s the problem limiting yourself to only 10 but I have cheated by mentioning other scandals in the texts). Thanks for reminding me though,

    @Bob It does seem funny that I couldn’t find anything for California, although I did try believe me. If you hear of any please let me know. I suppose that Gallo’s Red Bicyclette was sort of a scandal for the region/US. Although the wine was made in France the guys at Gallo must have twigged that Pinot Noir was not the main grape. Don’t tell me they couldn’t tell the difference between Pinot and Syrah or Grenache.


  7. Karl Laczko says:

    No Californian scandal? What about Sausalito Cellar’s Mark Anderson and his alleged (since he’s now changed his plea to not guilty) arson of the Wines Central warehouse in Vallejo in 2005?
    A similar fraud, without the warehouse arson (but only because they never had the wine in the first place), in the UK resulted in the jaiing of Paul Craven and Oseghale Hayble of Bordeaux Wine Trading Ltd earlier this year.
    Throw away the keys…..

  8. Tim Pawsey says:

    Thanks for such an informative piece, Rupert …
    Fake icewine, either made or bottled in China, continues to pose a major problem for legitimate Canadian and German producers. Most agree that by far the majority of ‘icewine’ sold in China (amounting to several million dollars worth annually) is bogus, sometimes little more than sugared water.
    The good news is that most fake bottles are pretty easy to spot as, like the Mt. Tauch knock-offs, their labels usually involve some sort of excruciating typo or spelling mistake and rarely make reference to Canada’s VQA appellation law, although the original Mission Hill fake labels (among the first that brought the practice to light) were convincingly copied right down to the typeface. British Columbia’s Wine Institute now lists certified BC VQA producers by vintage on its website. Any Canadian wine using the legally correct term of ‘icewine’ (one word) has to be VQA origin certified.
    The bad news is that most Chinese buyers don’t know any better—and likely won’t for some time yet.
    Extensive WS piece here:

  9. wino says:

    What about the Australian winery, Kingston Estate, adding silver nitrate to their wines to improve aroma debacle of 2010?

  10. Jon Hesford says:

    To be truthful, the reasons there are few scandals in the list from California is that half of the things that caused the scandals in Europe are permitted in California anyway.

  11. Pieter Malan says:

    High on my list of scandals is the fake Champagne that KWV exported to Panama (1988) with Moet & Chandon labels printed by a local South African printer. LVMH and interpol investigated but all was nicely swept under the carpet. Following that was the KWV adding greenpepper to their Sauvignon Blanc shaming the whole South Africa wine industry.
    The Billionaire’s Vinegar by Benjamin Wallace was a skillful recording of the Jefferson bottles but there are many more scandals for him to dig up.

  12. arnie backbacon says:

    The biggest fraud in canada is the VQA itself- being a small winery owner and winemaker here are the facts
    regarding the Vintners Quality Assurance.
    There is no assurance of anything- period. The wine that boasts a VQA label could have come from anywhere
    on the planet- the universe in fact- if that was possible.
    Here is how it works- first off you have to plunk down $ 1000.00 cdn to join the fraud that is the
    VQA – once you have a wine you feel you want VQA status- you send it to the LCBO lab for analysis- just to
    make sure you’re not poisoning someone- then as part of a $300 fee the wine moves on to a tasting panel of
    possibly cashiers, stockboys, product “experts”. industry wine writers…… really anybody who they can find who has
    a few hours to kill- no real experience necessary as far as i can gather- this is who decides on whether or not
    your wine is worthy of the VQA moniker- let me retreat a little- the wine you send in, could be from anywhere….
    literally, i could go to my local lcbo, buy 3 bottles, come back to my winery and transfer the wine to my bottle and
    submit it to VQA for approval. that is the honest truth. it gets better. if the “expert” panel decides you are worthy then
    you are permitted to put VQA on your label. in fact in 2 places on the bottle- they are real sticklers about this, because
    after all it’s now a VQA wine. here’s the better part- once you have approval there is absolutely no follow up- the
    wine that you bottle going forward is a moot point- no checks- no balances- the wine that you plunk that bogus
    VQA label on is never authenticated. nothing-zero- a bulk wine brought in by “constipation brands” from god
    knows where, could now be sitting on a shelf at your local LCBO proudly displaying the VQA SEAL of ASSURANCE.
    Not only is the VQA a complete fraud- it’s a legislated fraud. the LT. Governor of Ontario instituted an award of
    excellence for the wine industry- 2011 being the first year- the catch is, all wines submitted have to be VQA wines-
    which could come from anywhere on the planet- given the lack of scrutiny by the VQA i have just explained. Sadly,
    there are 100’s of great Ontario wines which never get to the public palate because of this stranglehold .
    i just received an email from the Brock University Oenology Dept. announcing a pinot noir challenge in march 2012.
    Please submit your VQA wines- my heart sunk- i have 3 great pinots to enter- 2 of which won awards in the 9th
    annual pinot noir challenge in california last winter. over 400 pinots from around the world- sadly, i can’t enter my
    100 % ontario grown and made wine- in my own province- in my own country- why? it’s not VQA- because, you
    might gather by now- in VQA wine ” there is no truth”.

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