Why Would You Add Antifreeze to Wine?

To many people adding one of the principal ingredients in antifreeze to wine sounds almost cartoonishly stupid and evil, which is probably why that exact scenario is the basis for an entire episode of The Simpsons. Nevertheless, for at least 7 years, many major wine makers in Austria decided to add this highly toxic poison to their wines, with a handful of bottles even found to contain enough of the offending substance that one person imbibing said bottle would shortly thereafter no longer be capable of drinking, well, anything, ever again.

So whose monumentally stupid idea was this and why did they do it?

While you might think surely this could have only occurred in the Wild West days of newly industrialized food sales in the late 19th and early 20th centuries- a time, for example, that saw U.S. researcher Dr. Harvey Wiley famously put together his “Poison Squad” to ingest various highly questionable common food additives– in fact, this particular wine event took place in the late 20th century.

Our story today begins in the early 1970s when Austrian winemakers had made something of a splash in the wine world by flooding the market with bottles of plonk that were paradoxically cheap, but consistently rated as reasonably good quality. In particular, Austrian winemakers were known for producing inexpensive, yet exceptional sweet white wines, which quickly became popular throughout Germany, and were exported to a variety of other countries en masse as well, including the United States.

As a result of all of this, a number of German stores placed large orders with major Austrian winemakers. Important here is that many of these deals specifically required Austrian winemakers to follow the Prädikat scale and produce wines that, if produced in Germany, would rank very highly on it- most pertinently, this meant they had to be fairly sweet tasting.

Trouble began almost immediately for the winemakers, however, when a change in weather patterns in the late 1970s and continuing into the 1980s resulted in many vineyards growing too many grapes. While you’d think an abundance of grapes would be a good thing, the specific kind of wine German supermarkets had ordered necessitated the growing of a smaller number of grapes that would then be left to ripen on the vine. Significantly higher grape yields made proper ripening a no-go in some cases and, as a result, many Austrian winemakers ended up with thousands of gallons of wine that was, to quote one contemporary report, “thin and sour”. In other words, large contracts were signed, but a lot of the wine makers could no longer meet the terms of the deal in quality and quantity of wine to be delivered.

Thus, the winemakers began desperately experimenting with ways to make the wine taste better, doing things like adding sugar and fruit to hit the needed ratings- two things, for anyone who’s curious, are also a huge no-no and would constitute breaching the contracts if discovered; but at least if not found out, they could deliver the product and get paid.

As for who first suggested adding a highly toxic chemical to the wine to sweeten it and when, according to a later investigation, the finger seems to be pointed at wine consultant and chemist Otto Nadrasky Sr. He allegedly suggested to the winemakers who had hired him that adding a small amount of diethylene glycol to wine not only made it taste sweeter, but also added a significant amount of “body”, making it taste like a much higher quality wine than it actually was. As another bonus, the chemical was also relatively cheap. As for when this happened, the first known bottles that would later test positive for the chemical seem to have been from around 1978 or so, give or take.

Of course, the one drawback of all of this is that diethylene glycol is extremely toxic. In fact, it was this very chemical added to some medicine to make it more appealing to children in the early 20th century that spurred a complete overhaul of the power the formerly toothless FDA in the United States had. More on this insanely tragic ordeal in the Bonus Facts in a bit.

Going back to the Austrian Wine Incident, after conducting a few tests to ensure that adding the chemical could fool the palates of even the most seasoned of wine experts, the first wines with the chemical added were shipped. Not long after, it seems the news quietly spread around the Austrian wine industry of how they could boost the perceived quality of their wines cheaply and easily. That said, it should be noted here that there were at the time over 2,000 wine brands in Austria, and it would appear only a few hundred of them ultimately did this, with the majority of altered wines connected to some of the biggest brands and bottlers.

Amazingly, the fact that many Austrian winemakers were selling wine sweetened with actual poison went unnoticed for several years. The key was that most bottles, with some alarming exceptions we’ll get to shortly, needed only a fraction of a gram to a few grams of diethylene glycol per liter to get the flavor right. For reference, while there is no firm number universally accepted, it’s generally considered that a fatal dose of the substance would be around 15-70 grams consumed at once, depending on a variety of factors.

The result was for someone to die relatively quickly from the poison, they’d need to drink a dozen or two bottles in relatively short order to make that happen. Thus, while unequivocally regularly ingesting small amounts of diethylene glycol can cause liver and kidney damage, along with eventual neurological issues, among other problems, it wasn’t going to be something people would necessarily link to wine consumption, and certainly would take time for issues to pop up.

Because of this, the scheme was not revealed by anyone dying. Rather, on June 27, 1985- at least seven years after the wine makers began doing this- a laboratory in West German was running routine tests on bottles of wine bought in a local supermarket to ensure they didn’t contain any artificial sweeteners. This testing had become more and more common thanks to an earlier scandal involving Italian wine makers who started adding sweeteners to their wines from 1980 to 1982. What the lab found in this case was a 1983 bottle of Ruster Auslese bought from a supermarket in Stuttgart had been contaminated with the offending chemical somehow.

Authorities were understandably concerned to learn the poison had found its way into the wine and quickly ordered additional tests on more bottles of wine from the region, fearing that they also had somehow been contaminated during production. However, as more and more bottles from a diverse group of suppliers were found to contain the chemical, it became apparent that something altogether more nefarious was afoot.

The scandal only grew from there. You see, Austrian Agriculture Minister Günter Haiden openly admitted his group found out three months before the aforementioned lab discovery that the chemical was being put in certain wines. Upon this discovery, other bodies within the Austrian government were alerted to the problem, including the courts for potential prosecution of the wine makers. In fine bureaucratic form, however, absolutely nobody did anything about it from there, not even tell the public.

A little over a month after this, the Austrian Minister also stated they informed the West German authorities of the tainted Austrian wine, first telling them on May 10th. This was about a month and a half before the lab made their discovery and broke the news…

As you might have guessed from this, much like their Austrian counterparts, the West German authorities did nothing when they first learned of the problem from the Austrians. Although, in this case, rather than admit they’d known as the Austrians did, the German officials initially denied they’d been told anything. Soon enough, however, mounting evidence that they were lying through their full-bodied, diethylene glycol sweetened teeth came out and they fessed up.

Naturally, the public were outraged and the West German government, seemingly overcompensating for their previous lack of action, quickly banned the sale of all wines from Austria in the country, even though only about 15% of the wine makers had taken part.

The government further confiscated every bottle of Austrian wine available for sale in Germany to the tune of about 27 million litres of the product. However, due to the toxic nature of diethylene glycol, West German authorities initially found it difficult to dispose of the wine safely until a representative from a concrete plant suggested using it as a cooling agent instead of water in certain industrial applications. This apparently worked.

In any event, as far away as the United States bottles of Austrian wine were likewise found to have the chemical added. However, in the United States, rather than ban the Austrian wine outright, the government somewhat more sensibly allowed wine sellers who purchased the wine to sell it so long as they first proved that a given brand and for a given year had not tainted their wine. While this might seem risky, of the 1,500 or so Austrian wine brands imported into the U.S. at the time, after extensive testing it was found that only about 0.02% of these seem to have taken part in the poisoning.

Again, one of the reasons Germany saw such massively higher numbers seems to have primarily been the brands in question attempting to fulfill their contracts with the German outlets and needing sweeter wine than they could otherwise naturally produce given the weather at the time.

Whatever the case, adding to the outrage was the discovery that one brand of a nonalcoholic grape juice targeted at kids was also found to have taken part in the scheme, with one of their bottles having as high as 1 gram per liter of diethylene glycol. As some kids drink a lot of grape juice regularly and the fatal or damaging dose for a child is markedly smaller than an adult, naturally the public didn’t take kindly to this news.

Adding even more fuel to the fire, while most of the wine in question wasn’t fatally dangerous in a single bottle, some bottles were. For example, a bottle of 1981 Welschriesling Beerenauslese was found to contain a whopping 48 grams of diethylene glycol- enough to kill most humans were said human to drink the whole bottle in a day.

Add up all these facts, and you’re probably now thinking the death toll must have been catastrophic. Well, it turns out, officially not only did no one die as a result of this mass poisoning, but apparently nobody even suffered health issues from it… At least as far as any official records we could find are concerned.

That said, given the known bottles that had lethal amounts of the chemical in one bottle alone and the long term negative effects of regular ingestion of small quantities of diethylene glycol, unsurprisingly many are still skeptical nobody died or suffered health complications as is the official line. It seems much more probable that these issues that likely occurred were simply never connected to the wine.

Whatever the case, as you might expect, the reputation of Austrian wine was severely tarnished. This saw exports on their wine drop from about 159 million liters in 1984 to just 3.7 million liters in 1985. There was also a marked drop in wine tourism to the country in the aftermath.

To try to fix the issue, the Austrian government ushered in sweeping legislation related to all things wine, ultimately instituting some of the strictest regulations for wine making anywhere in the world. They then highly publicized this internationally in an attempt to reassure people of the quality of Austrian wine going forward.

It didn’t work.

It would take until 2001- a full 16 years after news of the scandal broke- for the Austrian export numbers to match their pre-scandal levels.

That said, not unlike how Coke switching to New Coke resulted in massive negative publicity for the company but later directly resulted in re-establishing Coca-Cola Classic’s dominance in the market, wine experts have since concluded that this wine scandal was arguably a huge long-term boon to the Austrian wine industry. This is thanks to the intensely strict regulations Austrian wine makers are now subjected to, which in turn has resulted in an almost unparalleled reputation for quality in Austrian wine in recent years.

If you liked this article, you might also enjoy our new popular podcast, The BrainFood Show (iTunes, Spotify, Google Play Music, Feed), as well as:

Bonus Facts:

The aforementioned Elixir Suldanilamide Incident which saw sweeping changes to the power the FDA had to regulate things began thanks to a chemist for S.E. Massengill Co, a rather large company still around today. The chemist in question, one Harold Cole Watkins, realized he could make a popular and very effective medicine taste better if he added diethylene glycol to it, helping the medicine be more appealing to children…

The only downside was taking the medicine with the diethylene glycol added would result in an almost certain slow and excruciating death for these children as a result, with nothing the parents could do after initial ingestion but watch their children literally writhe and scream in agony for many days until they died thanks to the medicine the parents fed them…

As one Mary Nidiffer wrote to President Franklin D. Roosevelt at the time,

The first time I ever had occasion to call in a doctor for [Joan] and she was given Elixir of Sulfanilamide. All that is left to us is the caring for her little grave. Even the memory of her is mixed with sorrow for we can see her little body tossing to and fro and hear that little voice screaming with pain and it seems as though it would drive me insane. …

Nevertheless, the company went ahead with the addition of the chemical anyway, with results being even worse than you’d expect given that as the death toll mounted, rather than tell pharmacists of the issue and immediately get the product of the shelves, they merely politely requested a non-urgent recall of the medicine… You can find much, much more on this in our article: Why are Kinder Surprise Eggs Illegal in the United States? (And note here, contrary to literally thousands of emails and comments we’ve gotten about it, yes- Kinder Surprise Eggs are still illegal in the United States. Those Kinder Joys you see on the shelves are a completely different product, as we explain in the article.)

On a much lighter note, soon after the Austrian wine scandal broke, several sellers tried to cover their tracks by simply disposing of their product in anyway they could to get rid of the evidence- something that ironically made some of them easier to catch. For example, a guy called Anton Schmied tried getting rid of 4,000 gallons of his spiked wine by dumping it into a sewer. He was later caught when people noticed that all of the trout in a nearby river had died. The authorities tested the water, put two and two together, and relatively easily traced it back to nearby Schmied who was quickly arrested.

If you might have been doubting Shmied’s intelligence at this point, it turns out authorities didn’t end up needing to test all the wines to figure out some of the culprits, as some wine makers had been stupid enough to list their purchasing of large amounts of diethylene glycol on their tax returns.

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