It’s a side of human nature which we may not be proud of, but which we all possess. That side that causes us inexpressible delight when our wealthy brother-in-law shows off his brand new luxury watch and we inform him that the word ‘Rolex’ only has one ‘x’.
And then tell his wife that most people buy their Prada handbags at Neiman Marcus, not from Nigerian men hanging out on the Fisher Freeway overpass at Eastern Market.
Naturally, as a commodity susceptible to knock-offs, wine is far easier to fake than a watch or a purse. In fact, it is so easy that I am grateful that it’s primarily done with wines that I couldn’t afford anyway. With apparel and accessories, the best of the counterfeiters spend considerable time and effort to recreate the original in all its fashion detail, but with wine, it is often simply a matter of pouring cheaper wine into empty bottles that once contained the real stuff.
Of course, that presumes that you can find empty bottles of ’61 Lafite Rothschild to play with; easier said than done, as you can imagine—in part because auction houses like London’s Christie’s now smash their empty bottles with a hammer to prevent them from entering the black market.
Christie’s has more reason than most to be squirrely—twenty years ago they were at the unwitting center of one of the most outrageous cases of wine fraud in history. Then-director Michael Broadbent, who to this day maintains his ‘expertise’ in rare and collectible wines, sat down with such luminaries as Jancis Robinson and Robert Parker Jr. to a series of high-profile tastings offered by wine collector Hardy Rodenstock. These included samples from the 18th and 19th centuries, wines purported to bear Thomas Jefferson’s personal engraving, and the extravagant culmination of the gatherings, a vertical tasting of 125 vintages of Château d’Yquem.
There’s a Koch Sucker Born Every Minute – P.T. Barnum
It was the Jefferson bottles that got him. Having sold four of them to businessman Bill Koch, Rodenstock stopped returning phone calls when Koch asked for provenance beyond Broadbent’s Christie’s authentification. So he tried the Thomas Jefferson Foundation at Monticello, who not only snickered at the suggestion that these bottles had ever been in Jefferson’s possession, they pointed out that the engraving ‘Th. J.’ had been done by an electric dentist’s drill.
Carbon-14 testing dated the bottles to 1962.
Dear Auctioneers, I Have a Bottle of Charles Shaw Merlot Signed by Napoleon: $500 k and It’s Yours
More recently (in March), another Hosebag-Formerly-Known-As-Collector called Rudy Kurniawan was arrested and indicted for selling fraudulent Domaine de la Romanée-Conti (also to Bill Koch, our favorite sad-sack slurp sucker, earning Kurniawan the nickname ‘Dr. Conti’).
The wine was sold with the blessing of certain whizbangs at Acker Merrall & Condit of New York. I am not sure what is wrong with these highbrow wine-appraiseing lushes, but apparently Kurniawan was also able to consign several lots of Clos St. Denis from Domaine Ponsot from vintages prior to any recorded production of Ponsot wines from that vineyard.
Not that the Christie’s is totally off the hook: In 2007, Rudy baby entrusted several magnums of 1982 Château Le Pin to them, and they wound up on the auction catalog’s cover. Bad luck for Kurniawan—Le Pin themselves happened to notice details in the photograph that didn’t quite jibe, and informed Christie’s that the bottles were fakes.
Turned out to be the tip of a Titanic-quality iceberg: When the FBI raided Kurniawan’s penthouse, they found an ocean of cheap Napa plonk along with notes indicating that it was intended to be re-bottled as vintage Bordeaux; he also had the basic tools of the fraud trade, including corks, labels and appellation stamps. The discovery sort put the kibosh on his original statement of innocence when he insisted, “Hey, I try my best to get it right, but it’s Burgundy, and sometimes shit happens.”
That’s right, Dr. Conti—shit happens. Sometimes spontaneously, and sometimes you have to give it a little nudge, right?
Icing on the cake? Dr. Conti winds up being an illegal alien; he was deported in 2003 and chose to ignore the order.
The Illustrious History of Illusion
The shenanigans of Rodenstock and Kurniawan are hardly the stuff of high-tech modernity; wines have been faked since Pliny the Elder began ragging about Roman rip-offs in the year 50. Falernian was the fraud of choice back then; despite limited production of the prestigious potable, the taverns never seemed to run out.
Through the Middle Ages, the proliferation of alchemy—chemistry’s godfather—found obscure chemicals with which to fake top wines of the day, but woe the ‘wine doctor’ who was busted: The penalty, frequently, was death.
It wasn’t until the European phylloxera epidemic of the mid-nineteenth century that the counterfeit trade really began to cash in; so devastated were the vines of Europe that a prohibition-style drought resulted, allowing the less-than-scrupulous to adulterate or falsify bottles of wine, some even putting American labrusca wine into French bottles—ironically, at that time, our own phylloxera-resistant wine industry was flourishing.
The European upside of these scandals, of course, was the development of Appellation d’Origin Controlée, meant to designate, control and protect the geography and the quality of wines in the future.
‘Show Me the Downey’
These days, we rely in part on the expertise of Magnum P.I.s like Maureen Downey of Chai Consulting, a self-styled, home-schooled pro on Domaine d’Erzâtz, Volnay-nay, Château Scamensac and Pseudossicaia.
Over the ten years she’s been sleuthing, she lists as the primary offenders (in order) Château Petrus; 1961 Bordeaux first growths; 1982 Lafite; Château Lafleur; Sassicaia; large-format bottles of pre- 1985 Domaine de la Romanée-Conti and Henri Jayer Burgundies.
“There’s a lot of dubious wine out there,” she claims, “And I don’t sugar-coat it if I find fakes.”
Finding a wine with a sugar-coating would indeed be a sign of a crock hock, although ‘salting’ is a technique she sees frequently—scattering a few fakes among a case of mostly real wine. “I look for label consistency,” she says in explaining how she winnows out the rotten apples from such lots. “Are all the paper elements on a bottle of a similar age? The combination of a new-looking label with a battered capsule would be suspicious.”
Ironically, Downey’s fascination with bogus bottlings began with a series of questions from Hardy Rodenstock that she received as a wine appraiser at Morrell’s auction department: “He kept faxing questions about glue, tiny numbers on the labels, punt marks on magnums of 1945 Gruaud-Larose he wanted to bid on…”
It got her thinking about the sort of minutiae that appears on a wine label—particularly a prestigious one—and how they might be faked.
My Personal Gift To You, the Reader…
If you think that you have been scammed in the purchase of a bottle of wine, whether at auction, online or at your neighborhood wine store, most of my personal tips point to the relative lack of SpellCheck on label printing machines:
As a result, phonetic spellings of French words like ‘Lafeet’ and ‘Ho-Brion’ are pretty much dead giveaways that you have yourself a faux château.