Two nights last week we returned to a familiar theme and played the game I call Three Bottle Monte at the tasting table in the wine shop where I work. The bottles and their labels are on display, but their contents have been poured into three identical decanters. The challenge is to taste the wine from each decanter and match it with the bottle it came from.
Most people are not winners, of course, but that doesn’t seem to dampen enthusiasm. During some down time I started thinking about why I named the game after a notorious scam played on city streets all over the world by shady characters and their partners in crime (called shills) who pose as ordinary schnooks absorbed in the game that are from time to time seen to win (the better to attract more schnooks). The thought occurred to me that maybe Three Bottle Monte is a too-close-for-comfort metaphor for the deceptive practices that dog the wine trade and have from the beginning.
Wine was one of the very first goods that were widely traded across and along the shores of what the ancient world called the Great Sea and we call the Mediterranean. Along with olive oil and grain vast amounts of wine made their way from one port city to another on small ships that feared to venture into blue water and instead hugged the shorelines. The carriers for this cargo in the days before the rise of Rome and well before the Greeks learned to sail were the intrepid Phoenicians, who, with little of value to trade themselves (the exception was the famed luxury textile known as Tyrian purple the dyes for which were a closely-guarded secret), enriched themselves by buying low, selling high, and monopolizing the sea lanes.
Even in very early days some regions enjoyed reputations for producing quality wine and earned top prices as a result. But what was the guarantee that the wine in the amphorae just delivered to you was what it claimed to be and not some duff drink masquerading as the real deal? There’s no question that this would have been an issue right from the start and the temptation to cheat a poignant one from ye olde get-go.
I don’t have any specific knowledge about how wine fraud was guarded against in these early days. We know that wine was put into clay jars and closed with seals that designated origin and that these seals would have served in the same way a signet ring might have to “brand” a document as authentic. We can also imagine that there were merchants who were very careful about what we would now call the chain of custody, dealing only with individuals who could be trusted not to tamper with the cargo as it moved along often highly-attenuated trade routes. In one of the very few accounts of a voyage of this kind in existence a merchant describes how he never let his goods out his sight during the day and slept on top of his merchandise strapped down on an open deck at night.
Just as today, the cargo would not have been received at the end of the line by an end-user. The purchaser was a broker or wholesaler who would then take control of the wine and move it into a warehouse while he made arrangements to distribute it.
All along the way, from the winemaker to the wholesaler to the canny tavern keeper who measured it out to a thirsty customer, wine was in danger of being misrepresented, mislabeled, adulterated, doctored, colored, flavored, or — if either actually gone off or just threatening to do so — treated with something to mask the vinegary taste that was the harbinger of corruption. Everywhere along the sales chain to be the one in present possession of wine was to be at risk, so the safest course was to pass it along as quickly as ever one could.
The elder Pliny in his first century BCE compendium on natural history lists a startling number of ways in which wine could be treated to either make it more agreeable, more concentrated, better-looking or better-smelling, or just more like something else than what it was (you come away thinking the ancient world had a real talent for this sort of thing). He acknowledged that wine is really always better when it comes to the table as a natural product, but you get the feeling that this wasn’t something that happened very often.
You don’t have to be a wine historian for it to occur to you that Pliny’s sanctimonious rants against the bad behavior of wine producers, merchants, and barkeeps contained a detailed enumeration of their deeds sufficient to comprise a graduate-level course in wine crimes. He would be chagrined to know that for centuries his book comprised a sort of how-to for the very thing he disapproved of — the original Wine Fraud for Dummies.
All along the way, from the winemaker to the wholesaler to the canny tavern keeper who measured it out to a thirsty customer, wine was in danger of being misrepresented, mislabeled, adulterated, doctored, colored, flavored . . .
Bear in mind that the agricultural manuals produced in the classical age by Cato, Varro, and Columella had what we would call today very long tails and were consulted throughout the Middle Ages – we’re talking something like a thousand years — wherever copies existed. They took on new life with the flood of publication that followed Gutenberg’s moveable type breakthrough in the mid-fifteenth century. At that point “new” books on the subject are easily seen to be digests or even outright plagiarisms of these ancient authorities, a situation that remained true until well into the 18th century. The implication is that while these books were no doubt useful, they too had the unintended consequence of perpetuating ancient techniques for manipulating and misrepresenting wines.
In the end it seems that all wine fraud can be comprehended by the single phrase “not as advertised.” To wit: A wine sold as coming from a prestige source that had its origin in a perfectly ho-hum vineyard; a prestige wine that has been cut with, though not completely replaced by, some nondescript plonk to increase its volume; a wine identified as coming from a northern vineyard that has been blended with wine from a more southerly one to boost body, color, and durability; bad wine bought up at a drastic discount, doctored, and sold as healthy wine; grape wine that is not grape wine at all but a kind of cocktail of alcohol, flavorings and coloring agents like elderberry.
For each of the behaviors I’ve mentioned it’s easy to think of blatant violations of trust in the seller-buyer relationship. The most recent egregious example is that of wine fraudster Rudi Kurniawan who bilked high-roller auction hounds out of maybe $30 million by refilling empty bottles of top wines from prized vintages with less valuable wine and counterfeiting the labels and corks in his kitchen and home office. Reading accounts of his trial (he was convicted and is awaiting sentencing as I write) makes you shudder at the blind eyes that were turned in his direction by auction-house enablers who declined to inquire too deeply into the provenance of what he was selling and those same high-rollers eager to boast that they had filled their cellars with the world’s rarest and most prestigious wines.
But no sooner do you turn some of these practices over in your mind than hjgh contrast blacks and whites begin to shift subtly to shades of gray. In Bordeaux, source of some of the world’s finest wine, the practice has always been to blend wines with a view to providing a consistent style from vintage to vintage. This is true whether the producer is an individual chateau or a quay-side blender-broker of the sort that dominated the trade until the later twentieth century. Here, the buyer puts his trust in an estate or a blender-shipper and lets his palate be the judge of whether he got his money’s worth without inquiring too closely into where the grapes or finished wine was sourced. This isn’t so much misrepresentation as non-representation, I suppose. But its clear that in Bordeaux transparency isn’t really part of the equation.
Or think about the rules in California about the percentage of a single kind of grape that must be present before a wine can be labeled with its varietal name: a paltry 75%. This helps explain why so many Americans have a strangely distorted notion of pinot noir – one that leaves them wide-eyed and wondering when they have their first taste of a simple Bourgogne or Hautes Cotes de Nuits. The pleasures of cool-climate, high-latitude pinot are not for the faint of heart, but neither are they for those whose expectations for it have been set by hefty additions to it of New World syrah.
Finally, let’s not forget that however many additives and amelioration techniques Pliny enumerates they are nothing compared with the hundreds of chemical treatments and high-tech manipulations available to the contemporary winemaker. In the U.S. ingredients don’t have to be listed on a wine label (aside from the contains sulfites warning) and something like 200 additives are allowed.
I’d like not to think that deceit, deception, and mendacity are somehow in the DNA of wine or that the appellation system is itself a kind Many Bottle Monte that requires us to be able to parse a fiercely complicated set of rules just to avoid being defrauded by our own ignorance – but history doesn’t provide much justification for thinking otherwise.
A reminder that all weekly wine notes are archived at tableintime.com/weekly
Stephen Meuse can be reached at email@example.com
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