Thursday, March 25, 2010

Nukes and Nebbiolos: Atomic Testing Exposes Wine Fraud

Loved the headline and photo. I think I've seen this technique explained on "Bones," or possibly "CIS Napa-Sonoma." But Matthew extracted this version of the story from Scientific American.
We all know how carbon dating works, right? No? Well, as you should know, carbon makes up the chemical basis of all known life. Carbon, the fourth most abundant element in the universe, can be found in just about everything, albeit in different types of isotopes. Carbon 12 is all over the place, but carbon 14 (C14) is the rare and finicky little sister. The natural ratio between the levels of these two types of carbon in a given substance has remained constant throughout history, with one notable exception: when we were testing nuclear bombs in the atmosphere back in the '50s and '60s. Those high-altitude mushroom clouds inadvertently altered the level of C14 in the air.

Graham Jones at Australia's University of Adelaide thought he might exploit this variation by correlating the C14 levels in atmospheric samples from that period with the levels in vintage wines. It turns out that some vintners may be trying to pull a bit of a scam. Since, as they grow, grapes absorb a certain amount of C14 from the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, Jones and his team discovered a way to match air levels of C14 with the wine in the bottle; a spike in C14 means your bottle is no older than a Boomer. So, if you're concerned that your Two Buck Chuck is a bit younger than advertised, just grab your trusty liquid scintillation counter, and get to tallying your decaying atoms.
Scientific American]