August 9, 2007

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Stop, wine thief!
The criminal underbelly of the wine world
By Tim Protzman tprotzman@sbcglobal.net

One problem with the “me” generation of Baby Boomers and the equally indulgent Gen X and Gen Y is we’ve left a stain on the social fabric of America.

There is no shame anymore.

Do a crime and write a book and go on the Big O Show and revel in it. Criminal behavior seems to be rampant. Unchecked emotions, desires and lusts play out in every newspaper.

But there’s a crime that one rarely hears about. I think it’s time we had a column on that rare breed of criminal: the wine thief.

A wine thief in wine-making terminology is a long glass tube or pipette that’s used to take a little wine out of the ageing casks through the bung hole (yes, that’s the word, calm down), that little corked hole in the top of the barrel used to remove and add things while the wine is in the ageing casks. One of the great pleasures of winedom is to be invited into the cellar and taste wine directly from the casks. The long tube dips into the wine and the cellar master puts her finger over the end and holds it. She pours the young juice into a glass. It’s dark, dark purple, very rough and tannic, but like the parent of a newborn she can see its personality. She can see what it will become.

The other kind of wine thief doesn’t sneak into your cellar at night and slip bottles into his raincoat. Most great wine thefts have been perpetrated by the winemakers themselves. In the 1930s, it was the use of the relatively unknown, but still delicious, Rhone wines being blended into Bordeaux. Even though it was probably yummy putting a little syrah into the Pomerol, it was and is a no-no. Burgundy, with its patchwork of vineyards, has always been rife with wine cheating, mostly in the form of proclaiming the wine came from a superior terrior and labeling it fraudulently. I wouldn’t mind this so much if it gave me better-tasting wine. Certainly I don’t want to pay $280 for a bottle of Chateau l’Evangile when I could buy the same wine from Languedoc for $22.49. But that rarely happens. What usually goes on is when the wine is first tasted it’s just not up to standards, and if the winemaker’s got a mortgage and negociants waiting he might be tempted to add a little something to make it better. The wine’s good and nobody gets hurt. Sort of.

Then there’s the addition of borderline substances, a fouler misdemeanor. In Austria in 1985, a huge wine scandal broke when a team of accountants was auditing a well-known vineyard’s write-offs. They discovered the winery was buying quite a bit of diethylene glycol, the active ingredient in anti-freeze, and adding a little bit to the wine. Most people didn’t get sick because they’d have to drink the equivalent of 28 bottles a day for two weeks to build up to toxic levels, although I once knew a guy from Graz who could probably do it. But he was a beer drinker.

Worse was the Italian wine scandal where one producer added methanol, wood alcohol, to his wine. Twenty-three people died from that. And in 2000, an organized crime ring was busted with 20,000 counterfeit cases of Sassicaia, a Bordeaux-style super Tuscan made from cabernet sauvignon and 15 percent cabernet franc. In Australia, they’ve uncovered the use of silver nitrate, a fining agent which clarifies the wine. And in California, lawsuits are regularly filed to protect the Napa appellation name from being used to describe wine whose only connection to the Valley is that maybe the juice tankers drove through it.

One of the juicier scandals is playing out now. In October 2005 a huge warehouse fire destroyed $250 million of cased wine in Vallejo, Calif. The owner was indicted on allegations he’d set the fire to cover his siphoning off of more than 8,000 bottles of rare vintages. His case is ongoing.

I have met a few wine thieves. One was a restaurant owner who sold wine by the glass that was only a fraction of what it was touted as. He got the idea from an episode of Northern Exposure where a young woman accidentally broke the bottom off a bottle of 1927 Chateau Latour and with the help of superglue, chewing tobacco, ink, blackberry tea and Gallo jug wine was able to “replicate” the original. She was assisted by a woman who once had to reassemble a fifth of 100-year-old Laphroaig using apple juice, grain alcohol, ashes and leather. The restaurateur created his own house wine using cheap shiraz, chianti and cabernet sauvignon and sold it for $22 a glass under the names of lesser-known California cult wines. He’d say it came from a fire sale or was stored in marginal conditions.

Gary was a nautical wine thief. He had is vessel captain’s license and wintered in Florida and summered in New England. In the fall, he would take his employer’s yachts south. Then one of his people went to Europe and asked Gary to watch his house in Palm Beach. It had an wine cellar, although it was in a climate-controlled first-floor room off the kitchen. Gary didn’t know wine from pumpkins, but he enjoyed his share of Nuits-St. Georges, Volnay’s and Château Durfort-Vivens’ over the course of the winter. He was shocked to learn he’d drunk nearly $17,000 of plonk when his employer returned in the spring. His insurance company paid most of it off after he made a deposition that he never knew the value and “only grabbed what was sitting near the door.” All parties chalked it up to an expensive mistake, but the insurance company put an alcohol clause in his renewal.

Dave wasn’t a wine thief, but he loved good wine. He worked for a few New England vineyards in their pour rooms and sold quite a bit of wine. He had a thing for cabernet franc. He turned 28 a few years ago and was dating this Paris Hilton type. I got invited. It was a tacky little affair until his girlfriend brought in a case, in a real wooden crate of wine. The case said Joseph Phelps, but there was only one bottle, a cabernet. The case was chosen from Papa Hilton’s cellar. Inside were Corton-Charlemagne’s, Ridge Zinfandels, a Cote Rotie, an off-year Penfold’s Grange and an old Haut-Brion. These wines went well with the store-bought cupcakes once the candles were blown out. Did I feel guilty? Only until we opened the Chateau Fourtet, a cabernet sauvignon, merlot, cabernet franc blend that had aged so well we all felt a little larcenous.