Poison Plonk: A deadly wine scandal in Italy

A deadly wine scandal in Italy

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All across Western Europe last week, consumers were looking at bottles of Italian wine with suspicion and alarm. And with good reason: eight Italians died and some 30 were hospitalized after drinking red Odore Barbera, a northern Italian wine that was contaminated by as much as 5.7% methyl alcohol, a deadly dose way above the legally permitted limit of .3%. The scandal widened when a woman from the Piedmont region of northern Italy was hospitalized after drinking a bottle of Fraris Dolcetto del Piedmonte that contained methyl alcohol, which is normally used in antifreeze.

Italian officials reacted swiftly, fearing that the disaster could badly damage a wine industry that accounted for $953 million in exports last year. Italian Agriculture Minister Filippo Maria Pandolfi announced a new regulation that requires all wine marked for export to carry a government certificate of purity. Francesco Artale, director of the largest association of Italian winegrowers, tried to reassure customers in the U.S., which is Italy's biggest export market. Said he: "I can categorically exclude the possibility that any Italian wine sold in the United States has been adulterated."

No such guarantees could be offered to fellow Europeans. The French were particularly concerned, since their importers not only sell Italian wine in supermarkets but also bring in bulk brands from Italy to fortify local products. At the ports of Sete and Marseilles, officials sequestered tankers carrying some 4.4 million gal. of southern Italian wine and dumped it after discovering contamination. West Germany tracked down 1,600 bottles of tainted Barbera in a warehouse near Karslruhe. Britain and Austria removed bottles of the wine from store shelves.

The contamination may have resulted from a criminal effort by one or more wine dealers to boost their profits. Because the price of bulk wine is determined in part by its alcohol content, some wine dealers have on occasion added methyl, or wood, alcohol to their product. That increases the alcohol content of the wine and thus raises its value. But unlike the ethyl alcohol that is naturally found in wine, methyl alcohol in sizable doses can produce blindness and death. In this case, someone negligently or maliciously added too much methyl alcohol to the wine.

Italian police traced the poisoned Barbera to Giovanni Ciravegna, 57, and his son Daniele, 27, who run a wine-distribution outlet in Piedmont. They were arrested on multiple charges of manslaughter. Police suspect that the two men bought the adulterated wine from Antonio Fusco, a vintner from the southern region of Taranto. But Fusco insists that he is innocent, claiming "an act of sabotage has been carried out."