In the White Collar TV Episode Bottlenecked it was claimed that a test of all vintage wines bottled before the ABomb would not contain any Cesium-137 but wine bottled in the years since all contain detectable amounts of Cesium-137.

A search shows this could be plausible. But none of the sites I have found that explore this trope cite any reputable references for there claims of true. I can understand that if it is present that then you can say that the wine is not pre 1940's but is there any proof that the Cesium shows up in all wine bottled since?

The EPA site says that:

Cesium-137 in the environment came from a variety of sources. The largest single source was fallout from atmospheric nuclear weapons tests in the 1950s and 1960s, which dispersed and deposited cesium-137 world-wide. However much of the cesium-137 from testing has now decayed.

So is it possible that a bottle of wine bottled since 1950 would pass a Cesium-137 test?

  • The important thing to understand about such claims is what "detectable" means. I've worked with detectors on which determining mBq activities is a routine matter. (You just need a two or three days on the detector, and that limit is set mostly by statistics because the acceptance*Q.E. is roughly 0.2 for Cs-137.) Jun 15 '12 at 14:28
  • 1
    I suppose a second important thing is to understand that I routinely used bananas as demonstrate tools for similar detectors when VIPs, students, or curious friends and relatives were getting the tour of the lab. Your typically banana has a K-40 activity of 10s of Bq: they were very handy for showing a visible peak accumulating in the live DAQ display in only a few seconds. Jun 15 '12 at 14:41
  • @dmckee - My thought would be that eventually the Cs-137 would decay to the point that it is no longer detectable even if it is present. The claim in the show is that you can not create a bottle today that does not have the Cs-137 in it at a level so that it would pass the test of a sample.
    – Chad
    Jun 15 '12 at 16:08
  • The halflife is about 30 years, so the decay runs slowly on human timescales. Moreover, testing and accident related cesium is exceedingly wide-spread. Cleaning materials to be put in a low background neutrino detector is one thing, cleaning a vineyard is quite another. Jun 15 '12 at 18:01

I'm guessing it's based on the paper From the mass of the neutrino to the dating of wine from scientists at the Centre Etudes Nucléaires de Bordeaux Gradignan:

This technique has therefore led to the possibility to date the wine bottles having vintage between 1950 and 1980 or at least to control the year written on the label or on the cork. Furthermore, it has been shown that it is not necessary to open the bottle.

Caesium 137

The most interesting aspect is the presence of peaks of activity, which show that the wine keeps in memory the atmospheric nuclear testing (years 1950-1963) and the accident of Chernobyl (1986), which in both cases led to the presence on French soil of measurable amounts of cesium 137.

There is a strong correlation between the rate of cesium 137 decay and the year the wine was produced.

It is obvious that such a curve can be exploited as of now to estimate the age of a given wine, and to detect any possible anomalies.

For example, a 1930 vintage wine should not contain cesium 137. Conversely, an unknown wine in which activities of about 1 Bq/l or more of cesium 137 are measured can only correspond to the year 1963.



  • In this episode of White Collar, a Cesium test is used to distinguish a unique bottle of wine owned by Benjamin Franklin from a counterfeit bottled earlier that week (presumably in 2010, the year of the episode air date). The graph you show only goes to 2000. Would Cesium 137 be present in wine bottled ten years later? Oct 13 '17 at 14:58

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