Are you curious about the greatest con artists in the world of wine? What creative but illegal ingredients have been added to wine to cut costs and boost profits? What is it about tales of crime and greed that draw us in?
In this episode of the Unreserved Wine Talk podcast, I’m chatting with Rebecca Gibb, author of Vintage Crime: A Short History of Wine Fraud.
You can find the wines we discussed here.
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Three of you are going to be the lucky recipients of a copy of Rebecca Gibb’s book, Vintage Crime: A Short History of Wine Fraud.
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- What was it like to represent Great Britain as an athlete at the age of 19?
- Where did Rebecca’s interest in the cello come from?
- Why has Rebecca decided to donate a portion of her book’s royalties to finding a cure for Duchenne muscular dystrophy?
- Why did Rebecca decide to write about the riots in Champagne in 1911?
- What is it about tales of crime and greed that draw us in?
- What’s the meaning of the MICE acronym used to describe the motivations behind committing fraud?
- How have coercion and ego played a role in wine fraud over the years?
- Do you have to be a wine person to appreciate Rebecca’s book, Vintage Crime?
- What was the most popular method of wine fraud in Ancient Rome?
- Which unusual methods did vintners try in an effort to restore vineyards after the phylloxera epidemic in the late 1800s?
- How did it come to be that there was more Champagne being sold than produced during World War I?
- What happened in the episode of The Simpsons which features wine fraud as a central theme?
- I enjoyed Rebecca’s stories about the greatest con artists in the world of wine. I think we all love a juicy story about people trying to get one over on others. Call it whatever the wine version is of schadenfreude.
- I agree that part of what helps con artists get away with what they do is that people don’t want to admit they have been duped. That’s pride and human nature.
- I was intrigued by the creative but illegal ingredients that have been added to wine to cut costs and boost profits. There’s a fine line between what’s adulteration and what isn’t.
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There’s a fine line between what’s adulteration and what isn’t; it’s tricky. - Rebecca Gibb Click to tweet
About Rebecca Gibb
Rebecca Gibb is an editor for the online wine publication Vinous, covering the wines of New Zealand and the Loire Valley. In addition, she owns a wine and spirit jigsaw business, Puzzle Cru. Rebecca is one of only 416 Masters of Wine in the world and was awarded the Outstanding Achievement Award and the Bollinger Medal in recognition of her superb tasting ability. She lived in New Zealand for six years but has since returned to the north of England, recently moving to the beautiful Lake District in the UK.
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Rebecca Gibb (00:00):
One of the many reasons why wine fraud has been able to be committed is because there is that ego involved. People don’t want to admit they have been duped. Wine fraud today is really occurring top echelons now, and they tend to be male, rich. They don’t want to be seen to be wrong. It takes a lot to come out and say, you know what, I have been duped. It makes you look a little stupid.
Natalie MacLean (00:25):
Spending thousands or hundreds of thousands of dollars on fake goods.
Do you have a thirst to learn about wine? Do you love stories about wonderfully obsessive people, hauntingly beautiful places and amusingly awkward social situations? Well, that’s the blend here on the Unreserved Wine Talk podcast. I’m your host, Natalie MacLean, and each week I share with you unfiltered conversations with celebrities in the wine world, as well as confessions from my own tipsy journey as I write my third book on this subject. I’m so glad you’re here. Now pass me that bottle please and let’s get started.
Welcome to episode 255. Are you curious about the greatest con artists in the world of wine? What creative but illegal ingredients have been added to wine, to cut costs and boost profits? And what is it about tales of crime and greed that draws? In today’s episode, you’ll hear the stories and tips that answer those questions in our chat with Rebecca Gibb, Master of Wine and author of the new book Vintage Crime: A Short History of Wine Fraud.
I had like to give a shout out to Sprucewood Shore’s Estate Winery in Essex County for stocking my new book Wine Witch on Fire: Rising from the Ashes of Divorce, Defamation, and Drinking Too Much in their winery tasting room. And in doing so, supporting its message of hope, justice, and resilience. I’ll put a link to their winery in the show notes. If you visit a winery or work at one, please encourage the owner or tasting room manager to stock the book.
I’d also like to thank Dr. Neal Hulkower, wine columnist for the World of Fine Wine Magazine, for this review in the current issue, “A literate literary tale of triumph, McLean’s enviable gifts are on display. She bridges the gap between American brashness and British literacy and restraint. Her literate and literary writing informs and entertains with a blend of analytic detail and a healthy dose of humour. Much of its self-effacing. Being able to amuse while recounting a trio of personal and professional blows without diluting or lessening the impact on the reader is a rare talent doing so was likely cathartic. Her beautiful prose tinged with pain is elevated with hard earned wisdom”
If you’ve read the book or are reading it, I’d love to hear from you at [email protected]. If you don’t have your copy yet or would like to support it and this podcast that I do on a voluntary basis, please order it from any online book retailer no matter where you live. Every little bit helps spread the message. I’ll put a link in the show notes to all retailers worldwide at NatalieMacLean.com/255.
Coming up. I’ll be hosting a wine tasting and book launch event at the Ottawa Writers Festival on Friday, October 27th at 6:30 PM Two glasses of wine are included. Register at WritersFestival.org. I’ll also be hosting an event on Thursday, November 9th at 7:00 PM that you can attend no matter where you live. Treat yourself and your friends to a live online wine tasting and inspirational conversation with Menna Riley and yours truly about all things wine. I’ll share the juicy behind the scenes stories about those who make, market, and write about wine. All you need to do to join this private online party is purchase wine from one of the following top-notch wineries: Quails Gate, Westcott Vineyards, or Benjamin Bridge. You can buy wine from all three or two of the wineries your choice, but at least one. There is no event cost. All you need to do is get the wine. All three wineries ship across Canada right to your doorstep, and we’ll include a copy of the book. If you already have it, give it as a holiday gift as I’ll be sending out signed book plates for every copy.
You’ll also receive a Zoom link at the email address you use to buy the wine. Do you live outside Canada? You can still participate. Email me for details at [email protected]. So let’s get you warmed up for your holiday season with this fun discussion and wine tasting. Make it a holiday gift to yourself. You deserve a treat. If you can’t make the live event, don’t worry. Everyone who registers will be sent a video recording after the event that you and your friends can watch and taste along with at your own convenience. Make that your holiday party. Please let your friends, family, and colleagues know about these events. I’ll include links to both of them and the wineries in the show notes at NatalieMacLean.com/255. Okay, on with the show.
Alright, and just before I introduce my guest, just let me say that three of you’re going to win a personally signed copy of her terrific new book Vintage Crime: a Short History of Wine Fraud. All you have to do is email me at [email protected] and tell me you want to win a copy. I’ll choose three people randomly from those who contact me. Alright, back to our guest.
In addition to her new book, Rebecca Gibb is the editor for the online publication Vinous covering the wines of New Zealand and the LoireValley. In addition, she owns the wine and spirit jigsaw business. That’s an unusual pairing that we’ll have to ask her about called Puzzle Cru. Rebecca is one of only 416 Masters of Wine in the world and was awarded the Outstanding Achievement Award and the Bollinger Medal in recognition of her superb tasting abilities. She lived in New Zealand for six years but has since returned to the north of England, recently moving into the beautiful Lake District of the UK. That’s where she joins us now from her home. Welcome, Rebecca. We’re so glad to have you here.
Rebecca Gibb (06:52):
I’m so glad to be here, especially when you tell me that you only have the most interesting people in the world. I’ll take that.
Natalie MacLean (06:59):
Rebecca Gibb (06:59):
Very much. Some praise.
Natalie MacLean (07:02):
Yes, absolutely. You walk among them. You are one of them, Rebecca. And the Lake District. Oh, I love the Lake District. I studied the romantic poets at Oxford and we went up there to Grasmere for a conference in the summer. So you live in such a beautiful part of the world. Oh my goodness.
Rebecca Gibb (07:18):
Yeah, it’s Wordsworth country and I really like being in the outdoors when I’m not thinking, talking, tasting wine. I like to be on the outdoors, so it’s perfect for me.
Natalie MacLean (07:28):
Do you ever see 10,000 daffodils at a glance, tossing their heads in sprightly dance?
Rebecca Gibb (07:33):
Not yet, but maybe bring next spring. I’ll let you know.
Natalie MacLean (07:35):
Next spring. Okay, good. Be on the watch for those. Okay, I get distracted easily. Before we dive into your wine career, tell us about representing Great Britain in the 100 metre hurdle event. So where were you and how old were you?
Rebecca Gibb (07:49):
This was some time ago. No, had 20 something plus years. Yeah, I was a hurdler back in the day. I was British champion gosh when I was 18, 19. After I discovered I was quite good at hurdling when I was at school, and then decided to go down to the local track and started training and one thing led to another and yeah, I took it all the way and ended up representing Great Britain just the day after my A level. So A levels sort of the equivalent of high school graduation. I was off to Germany to represent Great Britain. Sadly, I got really badly injured about a year later. I have never sort of never gotten back to it, but I’m still really sporty and I still enjoy fitness. But yeah, I won’t be taking up hurdles again anytime soon.
Natalie MacLean (08:33):
Well, it’s a good balance, that kind of healthy lifestyle as you are in the wine and food business. Now you’re a woman of many passions and interests. You also play the cello. So how did you get involved in that?
Rebecca Gibb (08:45):
Yeah, my cello is sitting about six foot from me here just at school. We took some classes and whoever seemed moderately musical got given an instrument. And my mother said that there was no way that I was going to play the violin. It sounded like a cat squalling when we were learning. So I give it a cello, which in retrospect wasn’t the greatest idea because it’s very difficult to transport. I mean, it’s not as big as a double base, but you do need a fairly sizable car to transport cello. And my sister also played the tuba. So yeah, my parents had to buy a big car.
Natalie MacLean (09:18):
Wow. All the extra car seats there for the instruments alone. My goodness. And now to round this out, you love penguins. Why?
Rebecca Gibb (09:28):
Who doesn’t love a penguin?
Natalie MacLean (09:30):
Rebecca Gibb (09:31):
There’s many reasons. They are cute. I love the way they waddle, and yet they’re such great swimmers, so elegant in the water. And one of the things I really love about a penguin is that the male has to protect the egg when the woman goes off having for a swim, which seems to me a really great idea.
Natalie MacLean (09:49):
Oh, I love that. They’re so advanced, enlightened.
Rebecca Gibb (09:53):
He has to do the hard work.
Natalie MacLean (09:53):
Yeah, absolutely. Are they birds, technically?
Rebecca Gibb (09:58):
No idea. With David Attenborough. But I should know this. Well, they lay an egg. That’s okay. I don’t know. Someone in the comments section can enlighten us on that one.
Natalie MacLean (10:07):
Exactly. Someone definitely will. And you’re not here because you’re a penguin expert, so let me keep the focus here. But I was touched in your book, as we start to slide toward that, you decided to donate a portion of the book royalties to finding a cure for, is it Duchenne Muscular dystrophy?
Rebecca Gibb (10:24):
Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy. Yeah. It’s actually personally affected me. So when…
Natalie MacLean (10:29):
Oh, I’m sorry.
Rebecca Gibb (10:30):
Happens. So when I submitted my manuscript for the book, final manuscript, sometimes June, July last year. All melds into one now. My son started having some tests because he wasn’t keeping up with his peers. He had these really enlarged calf muscles. So we thought maybe he just had a really tight Achilles. But he turned out he has actually Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy. Which has been life-changing. It’s a life shortening disease and it’s a muscle wasting condition that affects young boys. And there’s no cure currently. But we really touched by the Duchenne community here in the UK and they’ve really supported us in understanding the disease better, trying to come to terms with that. So that’s taken over our lives really.
So while I was in the editing process and all sorting all out book covers and doing all this, this was really in the throes of just coming to terms with that. So I want to make things better. So yeah, we’ve decided that I wanted to put a portion of my royalties, 10% of my royalties, to finding a cure or better treatments for Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy. And I’ve also set up a bit of a plug here, a sort of a Just Giving page. JustGiving.com/MacMyDay. My son’s Macauley. And we are just going to be raising funds over the next few years just to try and help other kids as well because it isn’t just us that’s affected by it.
Natalie MacLean (11:54):
That is so admirable. And we’ll put a link to that in the show notes and in the comments on the live stream for sure.
Rebecca Gibb (12:00):
Natalie MacLean (12:01):
Absolutely. Oh yeah, kudos to you. Alright, let’s get into the book Vintage Crime. What drew you to this story in the first place?
Rebecca Gibb (12:10):
So as you may know or may not know, I’m a Master of Wine. So I became a Master of Wine in 2015 and I passed my theory and my tasting exams back in 2011 and 2012. And then I was searching for a research paper topic and I have a degree in history and politics and whatever you call it in the US. I majored in and I just love history. And I thought, well, do you know what, that’s my specialist study. But I’m being a journalist for 15, 20 years. I’m a researcher, it just naturally suits me. It’s what I’m interested in. I’m going to have to study this for the next six to 12 months. It’s basically like doing a master’s thesis at uni. So I started looking around for a topic and I stumbled across a couple of stories in a book that it was scantily covered about riots in Champagne, but this sounds quite interesting, juicy story, and I thought that’s something I could get into.
I speak French. I love to research. So I just started scratching the surface and realizing there was so little about it in the English language and most of the information in French was narrative history. It didn’t really really get to grips with why it happened. So I took it on and I found out that one of the major reasons why the riots happened in Champagne in 1911 was because there was an awful lot of fraud going on and people who were really growing the grapes and trying to make an honest living out of it were really struggling because they were basically being undercut by people who were making Champagne that wasn’t made from fruit that was growing in the region.
Natalie MacLean (13:53):
Wow, that’s incredible. And we’re going to dive into the Champagne story in a bit, but that’s great. And so why do you think that intrigued you at first, this Champagne story? You wanted to find out why it was happening and more about it, but why do you think generally we drawn to tales of crime and greed and fraud? What is it about human nature that is fascinated with these stories?
Rebecca Gibb (14:15):
I love wine. I’m a proper wine nerd, but I really love people too. And I love stories of people and I love stories of people who are less than scrupulous. It’s incredible how I have a moral compass, but it seems that a lots of people’s moral compasses are slightly askew. There’s a fearlessness to it. There’s some sort dial, but secretly you wonder could I do it and get away with it too? I just think there’s all that. I mean, we’re fascinated by fraud. There’s been so many Netflix series, there’s been movies like Catch Me If You Can.
Natalie MacLean (14:50):
Rebecca Gibb (14:51):
People love a story about people trying to get one over on others.
Natalie MacLean (14:57):
Yeah, it’s true.
Rebecca Gibb (14:58):
And yeah, it’s endlessly compelling.
Natalie MacLean (15:00):
And the number one wine podcast, I’m doing air quotes there, is called Wine Crime, but it’s all about, I think it’s two hosts discussing crime and murder mysteries as they drink wine. It’s nothing to do with wine, but it’s the number one wine podcast. So there you go. We are fascinated. And there’s an acronym or something that you have talked about. MICE. What does that stand for?
Rebecca Gibb (15:22):
Yes, that’s commonly used to give a reason why people commit fraud. It’s used by academics and such. There’s lots of different fraud things. There’s often descriptors about why people commit fraud. But yeah, MICE is a nice acronym that people can get their teeth into. M – money. People commit, people commit fraud because maybe they don’t have enough money or maybe they want more. And then I think of ideology, they really truly believe. They truly believe that they are doing something that they can do or they can maybe get one over on others. And also they really enjoy doing it and they justify it to themselves. I’m doing this, but others do it, too. Or they justify their own crime. And that’s sort of where the I in mice comes from.
Natalie MacLean (16:07):
Though the system’s unfair, so I’m going to get mine, whatever.
Rebecca Gibb (16:10):
Yeah, I know.
Natalie MacLean (16:11):
I’m sure lots of justifications.
Rebecca Gibb (16:12):
Totally. We all feel hard done by a lot of the time. So if they’re doing, why can’t I sort of thing
Natalie MacLean (16:18):
Rebecca Gibb (16:19):
C – coercion. Now in some of the stories that I talk about in a book, it seems that there are people who end up as party to the crime. They don’t want to be a part of it but they’re just sort of dragged along with it. Or they’re not the main actor but they do become part of the crime. And that’s sort of the coercion thing that people are becoming involved. And then ego, if you can show off to a wine critic or a wine expert, a major auction house that you’ve got a bottle of Yquem and it isn’t really Yquem and they believe it to be true, that can give your ego a boost that you could actually get one over on another and it propels you into perpetuating that crime. So you keep on doing it. It’s sort of that ego boost that’s a little. When you do exercise, you get the endorphin buzz. And for wine criminals, that seems to be the same.
Natalie MacLean (17:17):
Yeah, put one over on the critic even they couldn’t. And I would think ego plays a part, too, in the people, some of the people who support these con artists because they don’t want to admit they were duped or they like flying in these high circles because, when it comes to wine the fraud is all at the top, the very expensive bottles. So I imagine there are some enablers involved in this whole thing in terms of why it works.
Rebecca Gibb (17:43):
Absolutely. And that’s one of the many reasons why wine fraud has been able to be committed in the past 20 or 30 years because there is that ego involved. People don’t want to admit they have been duped, particularly if you are. I mean, wine fraud today is really occurring top echelons now and they tend to be male, rich. They don’t want to be seen to be wrong. There are a few people in which we talk about Bill Koch. He’s probably got a recommend saying he was wrong. But it takes a lot to come out and say, you know what, I have been duped. It makes you look a little stupid.
Natalie MacLean (18:20):
Yeah, yeah. Spending thousands or hundreds of thousands of dollars on fake goods, I’m sure. And why are you personally drawn to this dark side of wine? Have you done any therapy on that, Rebecca? [laughter].
Rebecca Gibb (18:33):
As I said before, I just find it really compelling. And I love, I mean, I don’t come from an actual wine background. My parents drug me from milch when I was growing up. I don’t come from that background, so I didn’t go to a private school. I just came from quite humble background. And I come from a working class background in the northeast of England, which is more steel and coal mining. So I don’t come from a natural background. And I think that I’ve always kind of been a little bit left of field, left of centre. And I just find that what I really love reading about when it comes to wine. I don’t love reading about root stocks and I don’t love reading about how many hectares of Petite Verdot are planted – and I’m probably going to upset a lot of people here – but I don’t really care whether it’s sandy soil
I do sometimes, but
Natalie MacLean (19:23):
I’m kidding. This crowd doesn’t either. It’s all about the stories. That’s why you’re here. Its stories about people.
Rebecca Gibb (19:31):
I really connect with people I love. So many boring wine books in my time that are perfect for the insomniac. And I was like, I want to write a wine book that people actually put down and go, you know what, I really enjoyed that book because that is such a rarity. Even when I’m writing, is to write a piece that people get to the end. It doesn’t have to be educational. I just want people to get to the end of it and to have enjoyed it.
Natalie MacLean (19:59):
Right, absolutely. And your book certainly does that. I finished it recently and it does read a detective story, and yet it’s all the more powerful because you realize this happened in real life. So these are real people, which gives it that extra edge. Yeah, absolutely. Well done.
Rebecca Gibb (20:14):
Thank you. I think it’s also really important. I also want people who are not just wine people to read it. I hope that it extends to a wider audience who’d just like a bit of history.
Natalie MacLean (20:25):
Absolutely. Anybody who is interested in people basically, or human nature. Because I think, although it’s great to have happy stories and so on, but nothing is more fascinating than the dark side of human nature. It brings out so many contrasts, the extremes of humanity, if you will. So you’ve done a great job in capturing that. You not have to be an expert, a wine person to read it.
Rebecca Gibb (20:51):
I love wine and I love history. I’ve always wanted to bring the two together. So to have this opportunity to do it is a dream come true. You know what? I may as well retire. Well, if I had enough money, I’d retire now, hopefully.
Natalie MacLean (21:05):
Well maybe you’ve learned all the techniques. You know what to do, Rebecca, just get some fake Pétrus labels or whatever. Kidding. Just kidding.
Rebecca Gibb (21:13):
Natalie MacLean (21:14):
Yeah. Okay. So you chronicle the history of wine fraud that goes back to the ancient times of Rome. What was the most popular method of deception back then?
Rebecca Gibb (21:22):
Oh, popular method. There’s lots of popular methods of deception, but it’s tricky in the Roman times. I mean, it’s really tricky because a lot of people love. Watering down was quite a common crime in bars. So they’d buy their wine but then if a bar owner might then water it down more than he or she probably ought to have done. And yet that was considered underhand behaviour, and yet it was common practice for Romans water down their wine in the home. So quite, I found the Roman period quite a tricky one in terms of just trying to discover what was considered normal practice or amelioration versus what was adulteration. Because often the two were very similar.
Natalie MacLean (22:10):
Rebecca Gibb (22:11):
Who might add water and that considered amelioration. I think it’s all to do with where the intent lies. Was there an intent to just see people would add seawater, herbs. They would add honey to their wine quite commonly to make the wine taste better because, let’s face it, and this time we didn’t have stainless steel tanks. We weren’t using SO2 to protect the wine from oxidation. Those techniques weren’t around, so your wine started down quite quickly. So people were using these basically to mask the flavour of what was essentially sour wine.
Natalie MacLean (22:47):
Rebecca Gibb (22:48):
Some people would do it intently in their homes. I might carry even like a sachet around with them to add to wine if they were on the road in taverns. If you were going on a modern car journey, you would take your own additions to make your wine taste more to your palette. That was amelioration, it’s making the wine taste better for you. But if it was done in a back office or something, there’s a fine line between what is called what’s adulteration and what isn’t is tricky.
Natalie MacLean (23:13):
Sure. Transparency. I guess. Now you mentioned that’s going to jump forward on the timeline because people have to get the book to get all the juicy details in between here. But you mentioned that Beethoven went deaf perhaps due to was it lead poisoning or lead doctoring in the wine?
Rebecca Gibb (23:31):
Possibly. Beethoven loved to drink, so most of us will know that Beethoven became deaf during his lifetime, but many of us won’t know that he suffered from really bad cramps. He was really grouchy. I mean, you’d be grouchy if you couldn’t hear a new composition. But yeah, irritable had rheumatism. His health was really deteriorating. And there have been quite a lot of studies which have shown that actually it could have been one of the causes of deafness and the medical ailment was lead poisoning because at that time people were adding lead salt or they were adding a thing called sapper, which was basically a reduced wine. So it was sweet wine, but it would be boiled down in a lead lined vessel, therefore it would pick up lots of lead in it. And that gave it almost sweet taste. And at this time, wines could sour quite easily.
So that sweet taste would make a sour wine taste quite lovely. And he would drink wines from Hungary. He would drink wines from Germany, but it had quite a taste of Port. And at that time, early, late 17oos early 1800, there’s quite a lot of lead in it and it’s definitely a reason why he could have been posing with lead. And there’s a whole big story about this around his hair and his skull fragments and yeah, just you have to read more in the Dying for a Drink chapter in my book. I’m not going to give it all away.
Natalie MacLean (25:03):
That’s great. Oh yeah, nice teaser. Okay, so then in the late 18oos, I should say, when the phylloxera killed you say killed off about 2 million hectares of vines, what odd methods did vitners try to do before they restored them? Now, this wasn’t about fraud, I just found it amusing what they were doing to try to restore the vines. What did they do? Its grafting isn’t it.
Rebecca Gibb (25:24):
Yeah. So it leads on to basically just to contextualize this, I try to explain why my book is like a history of wine told through fraud. So one of the reasons that fraud occurred later on is because of the phylloxera and the lack of wine. So yet there was this huge lack of wine. So phylloxera hits French shores in the 1860s, and it takes its time to get going and they don’t why what’s causing this. And we now know that if you graft an American root stock to a vitis vinifera, you were resistant to phylloxera. That’s common knowledge, not so common knowledge in the 1870s when it was really taking hold.
So the French government gives out a reward for trying to find a solution for phylloxera. So people start suggesting things outside burying coats in the vineyard that was suggested ineffective. Spreading volcanic dust that was also ineffective. My favourite of all is having a marching band play in your vineyard that is definitely the best one
Natalie MacLean (26:31):
[laughter] And it might be the closest to some vintners do today. They have music playing in the, well, it’s more the barrel aging cellar rooms or whatever. But I could just see a marching band going down the rows, the vineyard rows I would love it.
Rebecca Gibb (26:43):
Unfortunately, they couldn’t record it then on their iPhones. So it’s a shame, isn’t it? But yeah, sort of the late 1880s, they did come to the fact that actually they had to put it on American root stocks, but that wasn’t that well received. Did take 20 or 30 years before it was really truly embedded.
Natalie MacLean (27:02):
Wow. Yeah, that would’ve been devastating. As we know, it takes five to seven years for a vine to come to maturity. So new plantings, even on rootstock, were going to take a while before they produce the fruit that create the wine. So there would be quite a gap in wine production. Now during World War I, jumping ahead again, you note that 40% of vineyards, I think, in Champagne were destroyed, and yet there was more Champagne sold than produced for a period of time. Something like one in two bottles were fake. Talk more about that.
Rebecca Gibb (27:30):
So where don’t we start? Phylloxera have taken hold in France, sort of in parts of France in the south of France in the Languedoc for example, in the 1860s, but it didn’t really hit Champagne. First recordings of phylloxera in Champagne happened in 1892, so actually was actually quite slow to take hold. So it’s actually like the early oughts and the 10’s of the 1900 where it’s actually starting to take hold now. So people are having to replant at this time. They’re having bad harvests, so there’s not a lot of fruit going around. And yet Champagne’s becoming really popular at this time. You see lots of posters, some people on some people’s walls now postcards from Champagne period. This is time that Champagne marketing’s really getting going. People couldn’t get enough of Champagne. There wasn’t enough to go around. So what do you do? You truck in wine from the Languedoc. You’re trucking wine from the Loire, and it arrives into the station for example as a Loire wine, and it goes into your cellar, comes out as a sparkling wine that has a Champagne label on it.
Natalie MacLean (28:40):
Rebecca Gibb (28:41):
Yeah, it’s magic, isn’t it? And at this time, the laws are still starting to come together on this. Obviously this is not good news for the people who have just recently replanted and spent all their life savings, if they had any on replanting their vineyards or taking out huge bank loans. Then they’ve got what grapes they have and the grape prices are being depressed. So people are pretty peeved about this. So they head out into the streets, shout down with fraud. They also are asking, they’re asking for bread simply, they can’t feed their families because they’re not making ends meet.
Natalie MacLean (29:20):
And thus the Champagne riots. It got so bad that they were jailing children as young as 12 for stealing wine. They were clamping down on everything fraudulent.
Rebecca Gibb (29:29):
Well, the French army is stationed around the area, so around the area of Champagne to keep the peace and yeah, they clamped down, basically they clamped down on stealing. The riots happen. Wine goes down the street. Champagne houses go in flames. There’s general looting. I think I’ll have to verify this. I think that some child gets dealt for one single bottle of wine and some matches.
Natalie MacLean (29:59):
Rebecca Gibb (30:00):
A lot of people they are let go. But they’re arrested, but they don’t get sentenced.
Natalie MacLean (30:07):
Is this when Roederer, who produces that coveted cult champagne, Cristal that the rappers have shouted out and so on, Is this when they hire a full-time fraud detective?
Rebecca Gibb (30:18):
Do you know what? I’m going to have to find out. Cristal is something I have not heard about. But yeah, I think that’s really interesting.
Natalie MacLean (30:25):
Well, they had a serious investment in detecting fraud for sure. I just imagine a gumshoe detective, but in his office desk is a Cristal bottle, not the old whiskey. Anyway, that’s just my runaway imagination. But there’s some very creative ingredients that have been added to wine. You talk about rehydrating raisins and trucking up cheap wine, of course at night. But how did blueberries from Norway get into… was it Burgundy?
Rebecca Gibb (30:53):
How did they [laughter] Well, I mean, we love to see these days French wine, for example, the wine has been bottled at the property, but I didn’t used to see bottled at the property. That’s like Burgundy. That’s like the starts of that’s like 1930’s and 40’s where people start really bottling at the property. Wine would be sent in barrels, large barrels to a port would be sent to a merchant and it could end up in anything. And Norwegian blueberries are really deeply coloured as any blueberries are really. So yeah, so if your wine is lacking in colour and your customer wants a wine that’s deep in color, yeah, throw a few blueberries.
Natalie MacLean (31:37):
Give them what they want.
Rebecca Gibb (31:38):
Stick them in that. There you go.
Natalie MacLean (31:42):
And I just have to ask, this is, I don’t know if this is even in chronological order, but there was a label created called Cat on an Egg, but it was the French version. What was that?
Rebecca Gibb (31:52):
So there’s a whole chapter dedicated to how the appellations come about in 1936. And the leading appellations that occurring is Châteauneuf-du-Pape. And they were really stringent even before the appellation system was created. You can read about this in the book, but fighter pilot, war hero turned lawyer becomes the protector of Châteauneuf-du-Pape. And so they had these really stringent laws in place even before 1936, and once they won the first appellations to become an appellation for want of a better word. But yet then you see the critter labels comes along in the 90’s You see Goats do Roam. You remember Kangaroo
Natalie MacLean (32:38):
Roam. Yeah. Fairview wines from South Africa had Goats do Roam. They still do actually, surprised that they still have it.
Rebecca Gibb (32:44):
So critter labels come about, you see kangaroos on Australian wines, that sort of thing. And in that sort of period, along comes a Chat en Oeuf. So a Cat on an Egg.
Natalie MacLean (32:56):
Chat en Oeuf. Oh my goodness.
Rebecca Gibb (33:00):
I can imagine the people of Chateauneuf who have such a strong history in protecting their village. They weren’t best pleased about that. So yeah, they were given a cease and desist letter.
Natalie MacLean (33:12):
Oh, and did they comply? Did they take it off the market that you know,
Rebecca Gibb (33:15):
The Chat en Oeuf brand name given the heave hope, but the brand that replaced it, there’s still a Cat on an Egg.
Natalie MacLean (33:24):
Rebecca Gibb (33:25):
Get yourself the, can you have a Cat on an Egg? Perfect. That’s with cat food.
Natalie MacLean (33:32):
Oh yeah. Something’s got to perk that up. But wine fraud has become so mainstream. The Simpsons, of course, which picks up on a lot of leading cultural trends before their actual trends. What was the story on the Simpsons episode about wine fraud?
Rebecca Gibb (33:49):
The Simpsons? You don’t expect to read about that in a life book, do you? No, this is the very nature of my book. So it’s the first series of The Simpson. This is in 1990. I’m still at primary school then, so I do not obviously realize the cultural significance of this yet. There’s an episode called the Crepes of Wrath, and I almost only became aware of this episode when I went for my coffee at my local coffee shop, and he was like, I know the guy now who works there and who owns it. And I talked to him about my book that I’m writing, and he’s like Antifreeze? And he’s like, do you know about the Simpsons episode? I’m like, no. So I go watch it. Anyway, so Crepes of Wrath, Bart gets sent off to France on a French exchange as a punishment for basically blowing up a toilet when principal Skinner’s mother is sitting on it. Anyway, bad timing.
So he goes off to do a French exchange, but he doesn’t get put with a lovely family. I didn’t get put with a lovely family on my French exchange either. Anyway, I digress. He ends up with these two winemakers who are unscrupulous, the owners of Chateau Maison and they’re adding antifreeze to their wine anyway.
They make Bart drink it, and he really doesn’t want to do it because he’s seen that they’ve put antifreeze in it. It doesn’t poison him. So they’re like, oh, we can do this so let’s carry on. The long and short is that Bart tells a police officer what’s going on. He tells them that he’s been mistreated, he has to sleep in the donkey stable, and then he tells them they’re adding antifreeze to wine. Then the police officer’s like antifreeze to wine this is a scandal [laughter]. They get arrested.
Natalie MacLean (35:28):
He picks up on that [laughter].
Rebecca Gibb (35:29):
He goes back to read the US a hero.
Natalie MacLean (35:31):
Well, there you have it. I hope you enjoyed my chat with Rebecca. Here are my takeaways. Number one, I enjoyed Rebecca’s stories about the greatest con artists in the world of wine. I think we all love a juicy story about people trying to get one over on others, call it whatever you will. Maybe it’s the wine version of Schaden Freud. Two, I agree that part of what helps con artists get away with what they do is that people don’t want to admit they’ve been duped. That’s pride and that’s human nature. And number three, I was intrigued by the creative but illegal ingredients that have been added to wine to cut costs and boost profits. There is a fine line between what’s adulteration and what isn’t.
In the show notes, you’ll find a full transcript of my conversation with Rebecca, links to her website and books, the video versions of these conversations on Facebook and YouTube live, and where you can order my book online now no matter where you live, as well as links to my upcoming wine tasting and book launch events. That’s all in the show notes at NatalieMacLean.com/255.
Email me if you have a sip, tip, question or if you’ve read my book or are in the process of reading it at [email protected]. I would love to hear from you. If you missed episode one, go back and take a listen. I chat with author Pete Hellman about the shadow world of wine forgery in vino. I’ll share a short clip with you now to whet your appetite.
Pete Hellman (37:17):
There was a book in 1960, came out in 1960, I think by maybe an anthropologist named David Moore. Was called The Big Con. And he followed around master swindlers, con men who would strike up conversations with strangers. And before long, they had the stranger’s money. David Moore says the one thing that he learned from all these master con men was they’re very proud. They do not take anyone’s money. You thrust it into their hands. That’s what Madoff did. People begged him to take their money and invest it, and people basically begged Rudy for these mythic vintages that nobody else could supply. You want an 1867 Chateau Lafite or Latour? Rudy could get it for you. He had it and he had a backstory as to where he could get these wines which was plausible. But in the end, he was just a real con and he lied the way you and I hopefully tell the truth.
Natalie MacLean (38:19):
If you like this episode, please email or tell one friend about it this week, especially someone you know who’d be interested in the wines, tips and stories we shared. You won’t want to miss next week when we continue our chat with Rebecca Gibb. Thank you for taking the time to join me here. I hope something great is in your glass this week, perhaps a tasty wine that you came by honestly. I’m kidding of course. I’m sure all your wines are honest ones and honestly begotten or however you say that. Cheers.
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