Wine Fraud: The Scam Wine Business

Hands up if you are familiar with the Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale the Emperor’s New Clothes? If not, the story is as follows: two con men arrive in a city posing as tailors. They say their cloth is so special that only very special people can see it. This is of course a clever ruse as there is no cloth. Long story short, the king orders a bundle of clothes from them to “wear” during a procession. But of course, there are no clothes and the king is naked. A little boy points this out, everyone laughs and the king is exposed (quite literally) for his vanity. 

There are many morals to this story – don’t be vain, trust what your eyes see etc, but to me, the true message lies somewhere else. The con men were so successful that they even managed to trick a king! (albeit a rather egocentric one). So smooth and convincing were they, that even though they were selling thin air, they convinced everyone they weren’t. Ergo, if you have the banter, then the product is immaterial (pun intended).

What Is Wine Fraud?

The fine wine industry is rife with fraudsters like in Andersen’s tale. Cool, charismatic people who spin yarns that are so convincing we all end up believing them. The wine business‘ biggest rip off to date was by a man named Rudy Kurniawan, an Indonesian citizen of Chinese descent, who began selling fake wine to US collectors in the early 2000s. He too had all the hallmarks of a great fraudster – buckets of charm, enough knowledge on the subject to sound convincing and an understanding – like Andersen’s two anti-heros – that people with money want the best. 

Pro Tip: Using a trusted wine investment app, where you get a traceable wine will help you avoid this issue.

Kurniawan is now serving 10 years in federal jail for his crimes, but his antics raised an important issue in wine scams. How do we know when a wine is a fraud? 

Wine fraud has a vast annual impact on the industry, to the tune of over $300 million, according to IBM. Statistics however are notoriously difficult to come by. Wines that are as expensive as your car are so rarely drunk that no one really knows what they taste like. Like the villagers in Anderson’s tale, everyone tends to agree with everyone else, for fear of looking foolish. I mean honestly, who can tell the difference between a Domaine du Romanee-Conti vintage 1945 and a 1979? And if you’re lucky enough to be tasting it, would you really believe it could be fake? And, more importantly, are you really going to drink a bottle of wine that is worth over half a million dollars? 

Even if you are a beginner still learning how to invest in wine online, you need to take precautions.

How Do You Counterfeit Wine?

So how did Kurniawan, the world’s most famous wine scammer, dupe all those people?

Wine is a great thing to counterfeit as no one will open any bottles of worth – the very act makes the bottle worthless, so it could be red wine vinegar inside your prized bottle of 1986 Lafite for all you know. Remember the old saying if it looks like a duck and walks like a duck, then it probably is a duck? Yes, but no. Not in the case of fine wine scams at least.

Before investing in any wine, you must be aware of the following: 

  1. Are you buying from a trustworthy source?

With the rise of online wine exchange platforms, sale and resale of wine have become very easy. If you are purchasing online, make sure that the vendor platform is fully secure and offers only authentic wines. Look out for platforms that have only ex-Chateau and negociant bottles, and avoid those that let any third parties put their wines up for sale. We want Sotheby’s here, not eBay. Certain platforms go even further and secure all their wines with the NFC tag. The NFC tab serves as a track and trace device and guarantees the wine’s provenance. If you can find a wine exchange platform that has both of these then bingo. 

  1. Check the label paper

Sounds obvious but this is one of the key mistakes that wine counterfeiters make. Paper today is coated with silicone, which was not the case in the 1930s, 40s and early 50s. Maureen Downey of Chai Consulting (who specialise in detecting fake wine) suggests using blue light to verify any purchases. “If you’ve got a bottle from before the 1950s and the label shines like you’re at a disco under that UV light…that should be a red flag,” she says.

  1. Look at the quality of the printing

Again, sounds obvious but if wine fraud is so prevalent, it means that not everyone is paying attention. Historically, wine labels were made with a plate press, which leaves a very marked outline when viewed under a magnifying glass. Unless the counterfeiter is very good, chances are they’ll be printing with an inkjet or laser printer, which gives a different look and feel to the label. The ink of modern printers reacts differently to the ageing process too, and will inevitably chip – something “real” ink wouldn’t do.

  1. Check the label ageing

“The false aging techniques are almost endless,” says Downey. From baking in an oven to immersing in tea or painting with antique glaze, this is really where counterfeiters get creative. But some basic common sense helps here: counterfeit staining is done flat, while if a wine is the real deal, the ageing will have occurred on the bottle, thus giving a totally different look. Another point to look for is uniform oxidation. Paper oxidizes at a steady rate, whereas aged paper will appear splotchy. Check other bottles of the same wine, as well as the back and the neck label. Are the labels identically aged? They should be. 

  1. Confirm the cork

This is assuming that you are going to open and ultimately drink the wine. Bordeaux corks are typically 52-55mm long, and are branded, rather than inked. Downey also advises ‘A [cork] closure that’s in contact with red wine for several decades should have a deep stain. As bottles are usually stored on their side, the stain should extend toward the top of the capsule’. Another tell-tale sign is ‘Ah-so’ marks. These are the grooves that are left on the side of a cork by a two-pronged cork puller. Counterfeiters use this specialised extractor to remove the cork, scrape off the vintage and put a new vintage and sometimes producer’s name on (this was Kurniawan’s MO). They then recork and reseal and hey presto – your Yellow Tail Shiraz has magically transformed into a 2015 Chateau Latour.

  1. See the sediment

The ultimate in long living wines is undoubtedly the big, bold, Cabernet Sauvignons of Bordeaux. These wines are capable of ageing for 50+ years, and with that comes sediment. So if you’re holding even a 15 year old vintage in your hands but there’s nothing at the bottom, then warning bells should be ringing. If the sediment is real, it should move – fraudsters have tried many ways of replicating real sediment’s suspended rise and fall in the wine but so far haven’t managed to get it right. A gentle tilting of the bottle on its side should help you to see. 

  1. Beware of unicorns

Do your homework. Kurniawan was caught as he started to sell wines that were unicorns – i.e. never existed. In one of his auctions, he sold bottles of 1945 and 1971 Clos St Denis from Domaine Ponsot. Laurent Ponsot, the head of the house, found this surprising as his family only started making the wine in 1982. Ponsot hired a detective which ultimately led to Kurniawan’s demise. 

Historical Examples of Wine Fraud

Rudy Kurniawan is not the only one to have cottoned on to the fact that there is big money in wine scams. In the 1980s and 1990s, Harry Rodenstock, a German wine collector, hosted a series of high-profile wine tasting events of old and rare wines from his collection, including many from the 18th and 19th centuries. Included in these tastings were some “Jefferson wines”, wines that had allegedly been brought back from France by the former American President. On closer inspection, these wines were bottled in bottles with markings made by an electric drill, technology that would not have been around in Jefferson’s day. 

China famously sold 30,000 bottles of fake wine per hour, posing them as En Primeur during the En-Primeur peak of 2017. Empty bottles of certain wines – mostly Bordeaux First Growths but also big names such as Henri Jayer, Petrus, and the burgundies of Domaine de la Romanee-Conti – sold for up to $1,000 each and were then re-corked and re-sold to unknowing buyers on the black market. 

The Taste and Quality of the Wine Is Subpar For a Flagship Price

But the real proof of counterfeit wine ultimately comes in the glass. Not all fine wine is counterfeit and thankfully there are still some bottles of rare, real wine left out there for lucky collectors and investors. If you are buying for drinking (rather than investing), then we suspect you already know a thing or two about the taste (and if you don’t then read our full article on wine flavours). If the wine in the bottle you are drinking is counterfeit, there is simply no way it will have the length and breadth of flavour profile that the real deal will. That’s the reason that fine wine is so special, and that can’t be faked. 

Looking for a safe way to start investing in wine? Learn more about wine provenance.

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