Sunday, April 5, 2015

Wine, Lies and Glycol - The Austrian Antifreeze Scandal

Austrian wine bottlesIf you've never had a wine from Austria then you're missing out, my friend. The next time you see one you should buy it. It doesn't matter which one really, because Austria is so focused on the quality of the wines they export that you will never find a bad bottle. They're all about good reputation... but there's a reason for that.

There was a time when the reputation of Austrian wine was burnt to the ground and all that was left was smoking ash. I'm not saying their reputation for wine was great before then because it wasn't. Most of it was sweet and cheap. But a shocking discovery had their bottles ripped from shelves all over the world. So what happened that hurt them so much?

This year marks the 30th anniversary of the Austrian antifreeze scandal.

Before 1985 the wines of Austria were similar to those of Germany, and even sweeter on their near-identical Pradikatswein ripeness scale. Wines are given a quality level based on the length of time the grapes spent on the vine and the quality of the grapes, so the sweeter the wine the better the quality and the higher the price. These levels are Qualitatswein, Kabinett, Spatlese, Auslese, Beerenauslese and Trockenbeerenauslese.

But, most importantly, the Austrian version was mass produced and cheap. A lot of it was shipped to Germany to be bottled and sold, where if somebody wanted a Beerenauslese at an affordable price they could get an Austrian one. Or it would be given carbonation and sold as a Sekt, the German sparkling wine.

Austrian eagleIn the 1970's many Austrian importers signed contracts with West German supermarkets and liquor stores. Those contracts dictated the quantity of wine that was to be supplied and of a certain quality level like that Beerenauslese.

The problem was that the early 1980's saw a climate change in Austria that made for a rough time in grape growing. The yields were naturally higher and the grapes couldn't get to the needed ripeness that make those designated quality levels. In particular 1982 was terrible and Austrian importers and winemakers panicked when there wasn't enough quality wine being produced to meet the requirements of their contracts. The wine was thin and sour, nothing like what was expected from the German market. So some people took matters into their own hands and decided to cheat to improve the garbage wine being made. Typical sweeteners weren't imitating what they wanted so something else had to work... and they found it.

West Germany had been the victim of illegal sweeteners before by Italian wines in 1980 and 1982, and with the new technology of 1985 there were laboratories that had begun running tests on bottles of wine for quality control. On June 27th they found a bottle of Austrian 1983 Ruster Auslese in a Stuttgart supermarket that contained diethylene glycol. More bottles from Austria were found with the chemical. Outrage ensued.

Diethylene glycol, also known as DEG, is a chemical used for antifreeze. It's pretty lethal when served neat, as you would guess, and at lower levels it can do some serious damage. Most of the bottles that were found only contained a few grams per liter, so you'd die of alcohol poisoning before you die of the DEG in one sitting. But just 0.1 grams per liter is enough to do brain and kidney damage with long-term consumption.

Some of the bottles would do that damage much faster. 14 grams per liter could possibly kill ya, and a bottle of 1981 Welschriesling Beerenauslese from Bergenland had 48 grams per liter. Drink that whole bottle and call the mortician in the morning.

The previous year a wine judge named Adolph Schwabb was at a wine fair in Yuogoslavia where he tasted an Austrian Beerenauslese that was later found to include DEG. He's on record telling a Viennese newspaper that he "wondered where some of the growers' wines got that much body." He got his answer:

Diethylene glycol. It was being used to add body and sweetness to inferior wines, imitating that of higher quality.

Usually when I write about a topic in history the events were so long ago that my research is done by historic accounts and books, and articles that did their research the same way. This event occurred in 1985 and a lot of the newspaper articles from then are available online, so it's pretty cool to read what was being said and done when the scandal was discovered, directly from the news of the day. I feel like a detective in a movie going through the microfiche.

Check them out:
Wine Talk - July 24, 1985 (New York Times)
Austrian Wines Shelved After 2 Found Tainted - July 31, 1985 (Morning Call)
Scandal Uncorked Wines Tainted With Antifreeze Chemical  - July 31, 1985 (Chicago Tribune)
10th Anti-Freeze-Tainted Wine Identified, 6 Arrested - August 1, 1985 (Associated Press)
Toxic Chemical Scandal In European Wines Expands - August 22, 1985 (Chicago Tribune)
Austria Battles To Recover From Wine Scandal - September 28, 1986 (Los Angeles Times)

Almost immediately it came out that the Austrian government knew about the tainted wine three months before it was discovered in West Germany. The Austrian Agriculture Minister Günter Haiden claimed that they had informed the courts and authorities of each province in April, and they should be held responsible for not informing the public. But everybody, especially conservatives, were calling for the socialist Hadien to step down.

After initially denying any knowledge, the West German government eventually admitted they had been informed by Austria on May 10th. It wasn't until the scandal had made international news that they pulled every bottle of Austrian wine off the shelves for destruction and further importing was banned.

At first it was thought that West Germany was the lone export of the tainted wine, but it was quickly found that the destination didn't matter. At that time around 1,500 brands of Austrian wine were imported into the United States and, rather than destroying all of the bottles like West Germany did, American retailers could keep selling them if it was proven that they contained no DEG. Four bottles were found in the first month. A 1983 Illmitzen Felsonecker Beerenauslese, a 1983 Illmitzen Kaisergarten Beerenauslese and a 1983 Ruster Beerenauslese were found in Chicago. A 1982 Margerethener Auslese was found in Washington. By the end of August, the count of contaminated bottles in the U.S. was 26.

United Vacations

This whole thing was such a big deal that "glycol" was awarded the 1985 word of the year in West Germany. In Austria, a hotline for the public was made for questions, advice and possible leads. One woman called to ask if drinking the wine would give you carbuncles, a condition where boils collect under the skin in clusters. The answer is no.

There was one case of the scandal expanding outside of wine and into another grape product. One brand of nonalcoholic grape juice in Austria tested positive for DEG, containing 1 gram per liter.
"This is a catastrophe for the honest wine grower and for millions of wine drinkers. Criminals are at work here. They must be punished to the full extent of the law." - Helmut Kohl, Chancellor of West Germany
An Austrian Courthouse
The scramble to cover tracks began. Anton Schmied dumped 4,000 gallons of his red wine into the town sewer, where the DEG killed the microorganisms that clean the waste. Trout started floating dead as untreated sewerage emptied out into the streams. Schmied was arrested.

So obviously the tainted (and untainted) Austrian wine couldn't be destroyed just by kicking over barrels and breaking the bottles to have it go down the drain. Instead, it was put to good use. The wine was used as a cooling agent in the ovens of cement plants, instead of using water. In the end, 27 million liters of juice was destroyed by West German authorities.

The entire Austrian and German wine industries from grape growers to retailers turned on each other, pointing the finger to everybody else that wasn't themselves. One month into the exposure of the scandal, 28 people had been arrested including the man that started it all and his son. Otto Nadrasky Sr. was 58 years old when he was arrested. He was a chemist and wine consultant from Grafenworth, Lower Austria. It was his idea to use diethylene glycol, and from there it spread in a top secret spiderweb of connections.

Sentencing of over thirty suspects began as early as October, and the first punishment handed out was a year and a half in prison. A bunch of those guys screwed themselves over by claiming the cost of diethylene glycol on their income tax. Karl Grill, a winemaker and the proprietor of Firma Gebruder Grill, took his own life after his sentencing.

PierothOnly a fraction of Austrian wine was dosed with DEG but this was still a large scale scheme, embraced mostly by those in Burgenland. Many of the contaminated wines weren't from the Austrian wineries that did their own bottling and labeling but the middle-men that sent purchased wine to the big bottlers like Pieroth, a German wine company with over 300 years of history that had $230 million in sales in 1984.

Pieroth fought in the courts until 1990, claiming that German Minister for Health Heiner Geißler abused his authority when a blacklist he issued of all the wines found to contain DEG named the bottler as well. Pieroth was all over that list as the bottler, and felt their reputation had been wrongfully tarnished. They lost the case, and in 1996 six of their former employees were fined one million Deutsche Mark for the parts they played in the scandal.
"The American wine export market, which was built with considerable effort, is dead." - Anonymous Austrian wine delegate
Not one person was harmed or killed by the contaminated wine, at least that we know of. I find that hard to believe that, with the discovery of wines that reached up to 48 grams per liter of DEG, nobody got seriously sick or died. But the fact that one cannot be proven is a goddamn miracle.

Even with no physical harm done from consumption, sales slid. Enormously. Exports of Austrian wine averaged 45 million gallons previous to 1985. Exports dropped dramatically to 4.4 million gallons in 1986. Mayor Heribert Altinger of Rust, an Austrian town that was glycol free but still suffered greatly from the drop in sales and tourism, commented that "It is the worst disaster to hit this region since World War II."

Fred Sinowatz
Realizing that they had to hustle to save their country's wine industry, Austrian Chancellor Fred Sinowatz, a defender of Günter Haiden, announced that new regulations would be rushed into legislation before the 1985 harvest... and that they would be "the toughest anywhere in Europe." And that's exactly what they did. The long road to recovery had begun without haste.

1986 saw Günter Haiden gone and the new Agricultural Minister was Erich Schmidt. He said of the new standards and the future of Austrian wine, "We will do all we can to publicize the advantages of this excellent product. We must conduct an active, offensive marketing strategy," and so the Austrian Wine Marketing Board was founded that year.

Economist Karl Aiginger said of the lasting impact of the scandal, "In a year, it's all forgotten." He couldn't have been more wrong. The damage was crippling and nobody forgot, and Austrian wine didn't catch up to the export totals that it had pre-1985 until 2001.

Although the scandal was a terrible thing to happen to the country of Austria and the livelihood of many honest people in the Austrian wine industry, it was probably the best thing to ever happen to Austrian wine itself. Right now the Austrian wine industry is doing the best it's ever done and making some of the best white wines in the world. Their reds should also be noted.

Austrian bottle cap
They still use the same ripeness scale as Germany with a few modifications, but their dry wines are more widely praised than their sweet ones. They are massively anal about the quality of wine that represents their country and each wine to be exported must be approved, numbered, and awarded their seal of quality on the top of its cap or foil. It's a circle with a white stripe going through a field of red, just like their flag.

If you haven't had a Gruner Veltliner before (like the Laurenz V und Sophie Singing Gruner Veltliner) then you're out of your friggin' mind and you need to get on that as soon as possible.

You read me right. Get off your ass and buy a Gruner. Now.

- Joey Casco, CSW
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  1. Nice post! It's hard to believe that some who were complicit in the scandal actually claimed the expense of the Glycol on their taxes...

  2. Austrian wine is really an awesome wine. You say right that they are now focused on the quality after this industry have more competition.And this scandal is really a shocking news.

  3. Austrian wines are still shit and taste like dry shit even today...


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