Heading for a Tour de France style scandal

09 August, 2007

Just before the start of this year's Tour de France (and, a bit of Angleterre) I bought a copy of Vive Le Tour! Amazing Tales of the Tour de France, by Nick Brownlee (£8.99, Robson Books). It's a great read.

Alongside details of every race since 1903, there's stuff on the great cyclists and copious amounts of trivia. It's only now, after the Tour's reputation has been shredded, that I've noticed something else: the amount of cheating that has taken place over the years, including itching powder, spiked drinks, sabotaged frames, nails in the road and lots of drugs.

Yet somehow, until this year, the Tour has survived and even flourished. In 2005, after he'd won his seventh Tour, Lance Armstrong stood on the winner's podium and told the crowd: "This is one hell of a race. This is a great sporting event and you should stand around and believe. You should believe in these athletes. There are no secrets. This is a hard sporting event and hard work wins it."

No one believes that any more after the scandals involving Alexander Vinokourov, Cristian Moreni and Michael Rasmussen, not to mention Floyd Landis in 2006. If this year's winner, Alberto Contador, had given an Armstrong-style speech, he would have been laughed out of Paris.

What has this to do with wine, you may be asking yourself? Well, there are two lessons to be learnt from the Tour's disgrace: first that the authorities had the chance to stamp out doping, didn't, and may now find it's too late; second, that the sport has lost the general public's interest, respect and trust. The same thing could happen to wine in the space of a few months.

It's hard to prove it, especially if you want to hold on to your kneecaps, but adulteration (the wine industry's equivalent of doping) is a fact of life. This can take all sorts of forms, from illegal blending across national or appellation borders to the addition of flavourants and the fabrication, or mislabelling, of famous vintages from top châteaux.

In my experience, most wine producers are honest. You might question how many of the samples that are shown to the trade during Bordeaux's annual en primeur ­circus are truly representative of what ends up in the bottle, but this is a comparatively mild instance of legerdemain. At least the wine comes from the same vineyards.

So what could do for the wine business what doping has done for the Tour? The answer is another methanol scandal. More people remember the 1985 di-ethylene glycol scandal in Austria and Germany - partly due to headlines about anti-freeze - but methanol killed 26 people in 1986.

The scandal emerged because one producer, Giovanni Ciravegna, added too much methanol to a batch of "Barbera". "Otherwise," according to Andrew Barr's Wine Snobbery (Faber & Faber, 1988), "he and his fellow adulterers would probably have gone on selling their wines for years. People might have died from methanol poisoning, but too slowly for it safely to be attributed to one source."

The methanol and di-ethylene glycol scandals both happened because producers were trying to cut corners to make cheap wine more profitably. Could something similar happen again? You bet it could. In the current economic climate, where retailers wield enormous power and wineries are finding it harder to meet margin demands, making money out of wine gets more parlous by the vintage.

Expecting retailers to increase their prices is fanciful - just look at the current price comparison ads Tesco is running to trash its competitors. Given the fact that the government appears to be committed to increasing alcohol duty in every budget, the actual value of the wine we drink is in decline. There's nothing wrong with competition, but when it gets this tough, people will always be tempted to cheat, especially if they think the risk of being caught is slight. Remind you of a race in France recently?

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