How Atomic Bombs Help Unmask Counterfeit WineSarah Zhang6/06/14 5:00pmFiled to: happy houratom bombradiationwinefrancephysics92EditPromoteShare to KinjaToggle Conversation toolsGo to permalinkAs long as rich men are willing to pay exorbitant amounts for old, fermented juice, there will be schemers willing to dupe them out of their money. But if you're dropping a cool half million on four bottles of wine supposedly owned by Thomas Jefferson (true story), you want to make sure you have the real thing, right? You can, thanks in part to the atomic bomb.AdvertisementThe art of wine forgery isn't really about creating an authentic-tasting wine; the bottle is equally important. Collectors rarely crack open a bottle upon sale, and old wines can vary widely bottle to bottle after all those years. Plus, when it comes to wine, human brains are easily fooled by expectations. A quirk of nuclear bomb testing, however, means we can actually verify straight from the wine itself, without even uncorking it. How About a Glass of Cesium-137? When the U.S. and other countries tested thousands of nuclear bombs beginning in the 1950s, the entire Earth got a light dusting of cesium-137, an isotope that rarely occurs in nature. It found its way into the air, the soil, grapes, and, by extension, into wine. Cesium-137 dating became an unexpected consequence of nuclear weapons, with some unexpected benefits. Take a bottle of wine—or a painting or ivory or pottery—and if you can find traces of cesium-137, then it's a post-atomic age forgery. AdvertisementCesium-137 was first applied to wine forgery in the 1990s, when French physicist Philippe Hubert of the University of Bordeaux (where else, really?) was working with machines that could detect small amounts of radioactivity. In his lab beneath the Alps, he began testing wine for radioactivity. But a whole bottle of wine—glass, label, cork and all—is a tricky thing to study. The first several bottles he tested, which came from well-known modern vintages, basically had to be destroyed to attain any useful result. The wine was burned into ash, which was then put into the machine. With these data, Hubert plotted the chart of cesium-137 as a function of vintage year. There's a massive uptick with the onset of nuclear bomb testing, and a smaller peak from Chernobyl. By extension, the fallout from Fukushima fallout could, perhaps, be used to date 2010-era California wines . "In the wine," Hubert said to the BBC, "is the story of the atomic age." To be fair, by that logic, anything in the world is the story of the atomic age—such is the pervasiveness of nuclear fallout. Unmasking the Fraud In 2001, Hubert got to put his test to the, erh, test. As Benjamin Wallace writes in this book The Billionaire's Vinegar, the new millenium had brought an implausible number of 100-year-old wines on the market. Hubert was given six bottles each of Laftie 1900 and Margaux 1900 to test for cesium-137. This time, the (potentially) precious wine was poured into a container rather than burned for testing.