Hunting the thieves behind a rash of six-figure wine heists ... “They’re not crawling under laser beams or anything. They’re using sledgehammers and crowbars. But they know what wine they want. This is wine stolen to order.” ... The FBI thinks so, too. The agency’s San Francisco bureau has been tracking the crimes for similarities. The thefts usually occur over a holiday, when the targeted restaurant is closed. Only certain types of wine are taken–usually French or Californian, priced at thousands of dollars a bottle. ... A wine theft is notoriously hard to investigate. It’s often compared to an art heist, because once a bottle is stolen it usually makes its way through a series of black market dealers before winding up in somebody’s private collection, where it remains unseen for years. But unlike art, if stolen wine does resurface, it’s difficult to prove what it is or where it came from. ... Downey trained as a sommelier before becoming a part-time wine fraud investigator. For the past 10 years she has been on a one-woman crusade to rid the wine industry of counterfeit and stolen wine. And there’s a lot of it out there. The French newspaper Sud Ouest estimates that 20 percent of wine sold in the world is either fake or stolen; Wine Spectator puts it at around 5 percent.
China may soon be the world’s biggest producer of wine. In his father’s hometown, a prominent architect — and unlikely winemaker — sees a new Napa. ... When Ma Qingyun visits Yushan, a rural town an hour outside of Xi’an, in China’s Shaanxi province, he travels in a chauffeured black Mercedes-Benz. His car speeds eastward along the newly paved roads ... “How about we chug the first glass?” Frank Fu, a Shanghai-based venture capitalist, suggests, holding up his full wineglass and looking around. Laughs ripple among Ma’s guests, unsure if the suggestion is serious. Ma nods and laughs. “Sure!” Fu clinks glasses with his neighbors before tilting his head back and downing the wine. A few of the other guests join in. ... Baijiu is still the most popular alcohol in China (and accounts for about 38 percent of worldwide alcohol consumption), but the past few decades have seen a rapid expansion of the country’s wine market. China is now the fifth-largest wine-producing nation in the world, and it nearly tripled its consumption of red wine between 2008 and 2013, becoming the world’s largest consumer of the beverage. But old drinking habits linger, and Ma has acquired a benevolent patience with potential buyers who swig his painstakingly crafted pinots as if they were baijiu.
One of the biggest players in the fine wine market, Premier Cru had $20 million in annual revenue in the mid-to-late 2000s. ... wines were being offered on “pre-arrival,” defined on the company’s website as “wines we have purchased (typically abroad) that have not yet arrived. Depending on the particular wine, the arrival time is typically 6+ months to over two years.” ... This practice isn’t that unusual. Pre-arrival is a way for collectors to lock in allocations of highly sought-after bottles that might sell out—and often on favorable terms. To many clients, this arrangement had another advantage. Premier Cru sold mostly young wines; rather than having to age them in their own cellars, buyers were happy to let Premier Cru hold on to them. Better yet, its owner, John Fox, never charged for storage. ... Fox promised clients access to these nuanced beauties through a gray market. This means buying from brokers and other secondary merchants, mainly in Europe, as opposed to working with official importers. Although it’s legal in California, the gray market has its share of shady operators. Poor storage and handling is a common problem. The discounted bottles that Fox obtained, though, were always pristine, according to the four clients interviewed for this story. The trade-off was that Premier Cru was slower to deliver. Other gray-market retailers usually kept customers waiting no more than four to six months; with Premier Cru, the waits ran to years. ... Fox, it would be revealed, easily bilked wealthy bankers, experts who’d amassed fortunes reading the market, of hundreds of thousands of dollars. He led less wealthy oenophiles into deluding themselves they’d found a too-good-to-be-true source. And Fox, now 66, managed a remarkable juggling act for more than 20 years, all while fitting into his complex financial contortions a series of twentysomething girlfriends he found and paid online. In the end, he owed former clients $45 million.
Bringing people back from death’s door is Catena’s moonlight gig – she is on shift from 6pm to 2am six to eight times a month. By day, she is the managing director of Catena Zapata, the flagship brand of a family-owned company that sells bottles worth over $140m a year, making it Argentina’s second-biggest wine exporter. The firm was founded in 1902 by her great-grandfather Nicola Catena, and she assumed the reins from her father Nicolás in 2009. She spends four months a year in Argentina overseeing the winery’s operations, and two more as the olive-skinned, pony-tailed “face of Argentine wine”, promoting her products at tastings and dinners across the globe. She manages her staff of 120 via Skype and WhatsApp. ... Catena insists she sees her role as that of a detective, not an inventor. And she has modelled the CIW not after the development arm of a pharmaceutical firm, synthesising precious new compounds from scratch, but rather the upstream division of an oil company, searching for natural treasures the Earth has hidden away. ... how can destroying wine help Catena Zapata make its tipples taste better rather than worse? The answer is that the CIW is using baking as a kind of stress test: all wines subjected to this treatment will suffer, but some will suffer more and others less.
Zarnkow is one of a group of researchers who over the past few decades have challenged that story. He and others have shown that alcohol is one of the most universally produced and enjoyed substances in history—and in prehistory too, because people were imbibing alcohol long before they invented writing. ... Chemical analysis recently showed that the Chinese were making a kind of wine from rice, honey, and fruit 9,000 years ago. In the Caucasus Mountains of modern-day Georgia and the Zagros Mountains of Iran, grapes were one of the earliest fruits to be domesticated, and wine was made as early as 7,400 years ago. ... All over the world, in fact, evidence for alcohol production from all kinds of crops is showing up, dating to near the dawn of civilization. ... From our modern point of view, ethanol has one very compelling property: It makes us feel good. Ethanol helps release serotonin, dopamine, and endorphins in the brain, chemicals that make us happy and less anxious. ... To our fruit-eating primate ancestors swinging through the trees, however, the ethanol in rotting fruit would have had three other appealing characteristics. First, it has a strong, distinctive smell that makes the fruit easy to locate. Second, it’s easier to digest, allowing animals to get more of a commodity that was precious back then: calories. Third, its antiseptic qualities repel microbes that might sicken a primate.
As long as the public delights in seeing pompous winemakers and critics humbled, journalists will keep writing Schadenfreude-laden stories about the latest “Gotcha!” study. But these articles generally confuse absence of evidence with evidence of absence: they presume that if a handful of researchers did not find that one group of connoisseurs possessed statistically significant tasting ability, any claim to wine expertise must be a hoax. The truly interesting question is the opposite one: whether it’s possible for a critic to look smart rather than silly. ... Unfortunately, designing an experiment that gives tasters a chance to succeed requires the scientist to understand wine. They need to give the drinkers plenty of time on a small number of wines, in an odourless room with appropriate stemware; to taste the bottles and ensure they are not flawed; to choose wines that are representative of a well-known style; and to serve them at the age where they best strut their stuff. In other words, what you would need is the Oxford-Cambridge Varsity match.