A Sprinkling of Radioactive Dust, Anyone?
The story goes that in 1988, Bill Koch, an American multi-millionaire paid, at auction, half a million dollars for four bottles of 1784 Lafite presumably once owned by Thomas Jefferson. Apparently, the bricked-up cellar of Thomas Jefferson’s Paris home still held numerous bottles when it was discovered, which Harry Rodenstock (wine collector and music promoter) bought. Although Michael Broadbent, head of Christie’s wine department at the time, authenticated the find, the Thomas Jefferson Foundation believed the bottles to be fakes. So, years later, in an effort to decide the matter one way or another, Hans-Peter Freriks (wine collector and purchaser of one of the bottles in question), had the wine scientifically tested.
This is where it gets interesting.
You’ve heard, no doubt, of Carbon 14 dating. In a nutshell, every living thing contains a particular amount of carbon, and scientists know exactly how quickly the carbon decays. Hence, they can work out approximately how old something is based on a formula. The problem is that Carbon 14 dating isn’t as accurate on young objects – say, only a few centuries old.
Enter the atomic age.
Since the advent of atomic testing in the 1940s and ’50s, we have a new way of determining how old a bottle of wine might be. Cesium-137 is an extremely volatile and reactive metal that was released into the atmosphere and then proceeded to land on every part of the earth’s surface as radioactive fallout. It’s actually used as a cancer treatment (which is somewhat ironic since, in large doses, it can cause cancer) and to sterilize food. In large amounts, it’s toxic enough to be lethal. It also tends to accumulate in the tissues of fruits and vegetables. Think about all of those rows upon rows of vines in every vineyard all over the world. Since the mid-20th century, cesium-137 has been soaking into every grape grown. Oh, and don’t forget about the Chernobyl disaster. That nuclear meltdown caused a huge spike in the level of cesium-137 present in the atmosphere.
So, if grapes can absorb cesium-137, it stands to reason that the chemical should be found in the wine as well. In the case of the mysterious Lafite bottles, some cesium-137 was found. That means that some of the bottles, at least, couldn’t possibly be anywhere near 300 years old. Some were, in fact, blended with other wines dating to as late as the early 1960s. In short, Rodenstock had allegedly engaged in a little wine counterfeiting activity.
All of this raises a question for me, though, that has really very little to do with collectible wine. I want to know how we can even talk about organic fruits and vegetables when radioactive metals and other unknown substances are floating through the air and landing on everything we eat and drink!