The poisoned wine affair

An old Uruguayan crime resurfaces with the dissemination of classified documents, but will we one day know the thriller?

Producers in the northern hemisphere are busy with the harvest, and many wine regions are eagerly awaiting a great vintage.

Police have also been busy this week investigating various wine-related crimes – and one of them is the stuff of blockbuster spy movies and novels.

Let’s take a look at a few stories you might have missed this week.

The poisoned wine case in Uruguay

On the morning of August 29, 1978, in the upscale, seaside Pocitos neighborhood of Montevideo, Uruguay, three bottles of wine, wrapped in blue paper and bearing envelopes and cards, were left outside the home of the National Party politician. , Luis Alberto Lacalle Herrera. The wines are Rieslings, produced by Los Cerros de San Juan – the oldest winery in the country, some 200 km (120 miles) west of the capital.

Each is accompanied by a note, addressed to Lacalle and two other colleagues of the center-right political party: Mario Héber Usher and Carlos Julia Pereyra. On each is written: “Thursday 31st at noon, let’s drink to our country in its new phase”, and signed “MDN”.

Lacalle calls the recipients that evening and informs them of the gifts. All are moderate, centrist right-wing politicians operating within the military-civil dictatorship of Uruguay. Earlier this month, Pereyra and Héber (along with another National Party colleague Dardo Ortiz) met with representatives of the Spanish Chamber of Deputies and want to open up the country and push it in a more democratic direction.

“I had a meeting at my house, with political friends,” Pereyra said, decades later. “I received a phone call from Dr Luis Alberto Lacalle who told me that he had received – in a very unusual and anonymous way – a gift for himself, Mario Heber and myself […] Although someone expressed the advisability of not drinking it, due to the special conditions under which ‘the gift’ had arrived. We were all speculating on what would happen on the 31st and the bottles were almost forgotten. “

Thus, the unopened wines, the three politicians listen to the radio show on Thursday. The National Security Council (COSENA) sits that day and rumors are already circulating about its significance.

According to Pereyra, the whispers focused on the country’s de facto, but non-democratically elected president (and leader of the National Party), Aparicio Méndez, and the possibility of his being removed from his post by the military wing of the body. leader, chaired by General Gregorio. Conrado Álvarez (since linked to the US-backed crackdown in South America at the time known as Operation Condor).

But, although the radio regularly takes stock of the progress of the COSENA meeting, midday comes and goes. A press release is posted at 2 p.m. but is not seen until 8 p.m. He simply clarified that the meeting had established a salary increase.

“It seemed like a small thing for such a long reunion,” Pereyra said. There is no toast in the country. The weekend comes and goes. On his wife’s orders, Lacalle throws his bottle away. The two remaining bottles remain intact.

However, at lunchtime this Tuesday, September 5, Mario Héber’s 49-year-old wife, Cecilia Fontana, pours herself a glass of Riesling and dies in the evening. Each bottle was poisoned with lethal amounts of the agricultural insecticide Mevinphos.

Since then, no one has been formally charged with the murder, despite many theories and developments, and despite Cecilia Fontana’s son Luis Alberto Héber, currently Uruguay’s interior minister.

Predictably and unsurprisingly, the initial investigation failed, but most theories point to well-connected right-wing extremists; or the country’s own spy office, the DNII (National Directorate of Information and Intelligence), possibly in collaboration with the CIA; or both.

In 2008, a year after the case was reopened, the US government provided 14 declassified documents relating to the case, although they appear to have shed little light on the case. Additionally, it is understood that not all US documents have been released.

Additional investigative leads focused on the fingerprints found on the bottles, three of which belong to Ricardo Zabala, a deputy commissioner of the DNII. According to the left-wing Uruguayan periodical Brecha, immediately after the poisoning, Zabala was assigned to bodyguard duties in Europe and was never investigated.

According to the same article published by Brecha in July this year, “[when] the trial being reactivated, judge Gabriela Merialdo asked the technical police for all background information on fingerprints and toxicological analyzes. But neither the bottles nor the reports could be located, their fate is unknown. “

A possible opening also appeared in 2010 when the handwriting on the notes accompanying the bottles was named by a calligraphy expert as a correspondence with that of the former policewoman, María Lemos. Lemos was taken into custody, but a second scan, requested by the defense, and performed by the original calligraphy expert used in 1978, found there was no match. Lemos, who in 1978 worked for Police Chief Victor Castiglioni (also a senior suspect), was released.

This week, however, the national press reported that another line of inquiry had been opened the week before, following a statement by a former police officer, currently in prison for rape and sexual violence.

According to Montevideo Portal, “the former policeman had never testified in the case before and was summoned after an expert report on one of the envelopes in which the messages were sent identified his fingerprint. The newspaper [La Diaria] adds that at the hearing, the man gave contradictory and sometimes contradictory versions of his story. “

The case continues.

(The organophosphate insecticide Mevinphos can still be found in some corners of the globe although it was generally withdrawn from agricultural (and wine-growing) use in the late 1990s and early 2000s. In an episode reported in 1994, 20 farm workers in California were rushed to hospital after entering a field of iceberg lettuce two hours after applying the chemical. All survived.)

The lowest champagne harvest for over 20 years

If the yield of eight tonnes per hectare declared last year in Champagne was low but, given the global production problems due to the Covid, acceptable, what about Reims this week of real volumes of “around” 6.5 tonnes per hectare for the 2021 harvest?

Indeed, the figure makes the announcement in July of a yield limit of 10 tonnes per hectare (beyond this limit would not be eligible for the Champagne appellation) extremely optimistic, especially given the difficult weather in this season. According to oenologist and champagne specialist Caroline Henry, the 6.5 tonnes per hectare are “the lowest in 10 years that I have been here”.

According to figures from the CIVC (via INSEE), the 2021 vintage is still lower than the 2003 vintage, hit by hail and heatwaves, which peaked at around eight tonnes per hectare. Since 2000, yields have generally been between 10 and 14 tonnes per hectare.

However, not wanting to be totally singled out, the Champagne professional body, the CIVC, sticks to the mantra of low volumes but high quality. “Despite the low volumes (initial estimates around 6,500 kg per hectare), the quality is promising,” he said in a statement.

Four people arrested in Spain after cellar burglary

Four men appeared in court this week following an attempted theft at a winery in the town of Corral de Almaguer, 110 km (70 miles) south of Madrid, in the central Spanish wine region of La Mancha . The four men broke into the cellar offices through a window and fled with many bottles of wine and a cell phone.

According to the local newspaper La Tribuna de Toledo, the local Guardia Civil police were alerted to the break-in via the cellar alarm system, connected to the police control center. Shortly after, patrol cars in the nearby town of Dosbarrios, some 40 km (25 miles) northwest of Corral de Almaguer, stopped a car containing four men and moving at high speed through the town. .

A search of the car located the wines and the phone. Two of the four thieves were already known to the courts.

In addition to several other wineries in the city, Corral de Almaguer is the base of one of the largest wine cooperatives in La Mancha: Bodegas Altovela.

Argentina Wine Label Contest

As the Tango Through Wine Country themed dance event kicks off this week in Argentina’s wine capital of Mendoza (and hopefully one day will see more international participation), Mendoza is also seeing the National Wine competition. Potentially more remote friendly label open for registrations nationwide. .

Hosted by the Mendoza Stock Exchange (the Bolsa de Comercio de Mendoza, or BCM), the winning label will honor the 2021 vintage of the BCM. At the establishment, the jury will be made up of “professionals with recognized experience in design, communication and viticulture” and will close the applications on November 1st.

The winner will also receive 200,000 pesos ($ 2,000), while Mendoza City Council sets up a 100,000 peso prize for a people’s choice, as voted on via social media.

Tango Through Wine Country started in October and continues until next weekend. Please consider social distancing requirements and Covid precautions where you are, but Mendoza’s physical distance should hopefully not be an obstacle to tango.

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