The Jefferson Bottles

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This week, Patrick Radden Keefe in The New Yorker writes a wonderful article about a find of 1787 Lafitte bottles that were supposedly once owned by Thomas Jefferson (a huge wine connoisseur in his day) by Hardy Rodenstock, the sale of these bottles through Christie’s to Bill Koch, one of America’s great wine collectors, and the ensuing battle to authenticate these bottles (and others). It’s a comprehensive overview of the fakery that goes on and why provenance is so important to establish when buying rare or old wines. And it touches on some pretty cool techniques for determining the age of wines; an excerpt:

Skeptical of both parties’ tests, Elroy sought out Philippe Hubert, a French physicist who had devised a method of testing the age of wine without opening the bottle. Hubert uses low-frequency gamma rays to detect the presence of the radioactive isotope cesium 137. Unlike carbon 14, cesium 137 is not naturally occurring; it is a direct result of nuclear fallout. A wine bottled before the advent of atmospheric nuclear testing contains no cesium 137, so the test yields no results for older wines. But if a wine does contain cesium 137 the short half-life of the isotope—thirty years—allows Hubert to make a more precise estimate of its age.

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