Cesium 137 and Counterfeit Wine: Getting Nuclear on Your Bottles

A curious cork? A label laden with errors? What other tools do we have to spot a fake wine? It's science to the rescue! Especially when it comes to a pre-WWII vintage. The Salt digs deep into the world of wine fraud and those whose job it is to spot it. Most fascinating is the role that a radioactive isotope, Cesium 137, plays. See, before the first atomic bomb was exploded, this substance didn't exist. So scientists will test a wine for the presence of it by putting the bottle next to a gamma ray detector, which will prove that the juice inside came from a (circa) pre- or post-1945 world.

But you can't just break out your home gamma ray kit and shoot away at your (purportedly) ancient vintages. French Physicist Philippe Hubert, who tested the infamous "Jefferson bottles" that were supposed to have been 18th century treasures from Thomas Jefferson's wine cellar, goes to great lengths when it comes to the process. Bottles are tested a mile underground to preclude gamma rays in the atmosphere from coloring the results. And that's not all. Jim Elroy, a former FBI agent hired by the purchaser of the TJ bottles to lead an investigation into their authenticity, revealed, "In order to shield the detector even further, we had to use lead that was smelted prior to 1945. In this case, it was Roman lead smelted shortly after the birth of Christ."

But what finally was the tipping point for these wines being fingered as frauds? Turns out the "Th. J" engraving on the bottles did not take place hundreds of years ago in Monticello, but were rather done with a modern dentistry tool.