Germans Seize Contaminated Austrian Wine

Times Staff Writer

West Berlin officials have impounded all Austrian wine being held by importers in the city, and authorities in various other European countries are warning of the danger of drinking the wine, some of which is contaminated.

Austrian authorities, meanwhile, have impounded 30,000 liters of the wine--contaminated with ethylene glycol, a chemical used in automobile antifreeze--and started legal proceedings against 27 firms suspected of tampering with it.

In Zurich, Switzerland, at least 1,000 bottles of Austrian wine containing the chemical have been found and withdrawn from public sale. And in the Netherlands, Austrian white wine has been removed from supermarket shelves.

Health authorities in West Berlin impounded importers' stocks after tests showed evidence of the chemical in bottles of table wine on sale in the city, a spokesman said. Chemists are reported to have discovered some bottles of the wine with concentrations of up to 50 times the limit considered safe.

Drinkers Risk Damage

The chemical is apparently not particularly harmful in minute doses, but, according to some health authorities, anything more than 0.1 grams per liter can pose a health hazard. Depending on how much of the contaminated wine is imbibed, drinkers risk damage to the kidneys or the brain, or even death, according to health authorities.

It is becoming obvious, West German officials say, that much of the Austrian wine designed for export has been injected with diethylene glycol.

This causes the white wines to taste sweeter, allowing poorer-quality whites to be labeled as more expensive Auslese, Beerenauslese, and Eiswein -- which are strong sellers in Germany, where drinkers prefer sweeter whites than those made in California, France and Italy.

Austrian wine-growing cooperatives have taken advertisements in West German newspapers trying to allay fears that all Austrian wines are contaminated. "Only a few black sheep are responsible," proclaimed the ads.

But in Vienna, Agriculture Minister Gunter Haide said that about 30 exporters--or 90% of such dealers--are involved in the scandal.

Will Launch Probe

A senior member of the Austrian Parliament, Franz Hietl, announced that an inquiry will be conducted to learn the names of all dealers involved in doctoring the white wines. He declared that, to avoid irreparable damage to the industry, the wine-exporting business must be cleaned up and new controls established to ensure the quality of Austrian wines.

Austria's exports of more than $50 million in wine annually to West Germany mean the difference between profit and loss for many growers concentrated in the Bergenland area near the Hungarian border.

In the past several days, millions of dollars of orders were reportedly canceled by Germany wine importers. The cancellations spell financial ruin for small vintners in eastern Austria.

In an effort to counteract the bad publicity that his country's wines are getting, Austrian Chancellor Fred Sinowatz went on television in Vienna this week and drank some of the white wine to show that there was nothing wrong with it.

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