Monday, August 13, 2012

The Great Antifreeze Wine Scandal

The following text relates to the preceding article about Gruner Veltliner.

 In 1985 a scandal was exposed by German chemists who, when testing the purity of German wines, uncovered illegal adulteration on two levels:  1) German wines were being supplemented with Austrian wine, a violation of German wine law.  2)  That Austrian wine was contaminated with diethylene glycol, an ingredient in antifreeze!   At about the same time an Austrian tax examiner was wondering why a certain wine broker was claiming diethylene glycol as a business expense.

As scandals go, this one was major.  Diethylene glycol poisoning damages kidneys and tests revealed that the levels in some bottles could have been lethal.  Of course, it started innocently enough.  After two weak vintages in the early eighties, someone thought of a plan.  Why not amend the product with an ingredient that would sweeten and fatten the body of the weak wine.  What an idea?  Who could have thought of it?  While twenty-four individuals were charged and many went to jail, a chemist named Otto Nadrasky appears to be a central figure.  Perhaps the wine broker who claimed his business expense would be another major player.

While no one ever claimed to be damaged physically, the Austrian wine industry most definitely was.  Common wisdom suggests the industry lost the value of about ten years worth of business. Since only two dozen people were ever charged, the vast majority of innocent workers paid an excruciating price for the criminality of a few.

 Germany had been Austria's primary wine trading partner receiving ninety percent of its exports.  Because Germany's bulk producers were using the tainted Austrian juice, they suffered internationally also.  Having been in the business at the time, I remember the removal of German labels from the shelves and while I don't remember the Austrians of the time, records show twelve of those brands were also removed.  The contaminated Austrian wines were the opposite of the German bulk wines.  They were the elite pradikat wines, some of which being competition winners.  The wine with the highest level of contamination discovered was one of those award winning desserts and it was actually determined to be very dangerous to consume.

So here's the irony.  Austria decided to change from sweeter wines to Gruner and other lighter and drier whites as a result of the scandal, coinciding with the change in tastes of the global market.  At the same time, the screw caps that seem to aid in retaining the freshness of such wines, were coming into vogue.  So despite the hit the Austrian wine industry took, they have landed on their feet by proactively adjusting their industry to contemporary tastes.

This Friday (5-7pm) we are tasting everyday Argentine reds and whites along with our continuing exploration of superior California Cabernet.  Please join us.  And if you enjoy these blogs, please let me know.

1 comment:

  1. Interresting and educational - thank you Don
    Truth or Consequences won the contest from the show of the same name because they were the first to change the name of their town...hope it was a BIG prize.