Like other valuable and investable commodities, wine is sometimes now the victim of fraud – from bottles refilled or passed off as older or younger than they are to outright counterfeits.
Using a trusted wine supplier is the best way to avoid the possibility of falling victim to counterfeit or badly stored wine in a complex wine market. Fine wines – and especially old fine wines from before around 1990 – without adequate proof of provenance may be treated by experts and buyers as ‘likely fake’ rather than ‘potentially fake’. Trusted suppliers maintain the proof of provenance needed to protect your investment and guarantee peace of mind and enjoyable future drinking or sale.
Until the 1980s, wine – except Champagne and some Ports – was a staple agricultural product. Often cheap and rarely very expensive, it was the everyday drink of wine-producing countries such as France and Italy, and a usually less common novelty in other export markets, such as Britain and the USA.
Bottles, and even paper for labels, were secured on a cost basis, and often wine was bottled in the market it was sold, or by a merchant, rather than where it was made. This led to makers using different and inconsistent packaging for the same vintage. Especially during World War II, when glass and paper were expensive, even the best châteaux used whatever they could find for bottles and labelling. Simply looking at a bottle of wine could not determine its authenticity. But that was fine because no one faked wine back then.
The most expensive wine in the world
For the last thirty years, and very much today, fine wine has become an increasingly prestigious product. The best wines, i.e. those with scarcity, collectability and value, even when young, now regularly reach four-figure sums on release, and occasionally even more than that. The world has already seen the first half-million dollar bottles of wine (Romanée-Conti 1945, sold for $558k in 2018 and a 6 Litre bottle of Screaming Eagle Cabernet Sauvignon 1992, auctioned for charity for $500k in 2000).
What these two above-mentioned wines have in common is guaranteed provenance. The Romanée-Conti, the most expensive Burgundy wine, was from the personal cellar of Robert Drouhin, a friend of the owner, and was sold with the original sales records. It had never left Beaune, where it had been made. The Screaming Eagle was sold directly from the property.
The 194 vintage of the Romanée Conti, was exceptionally fine but at the end of World War II, there was a shortage of pretty much everything in France. The wine was not particularly valuable and was certainly not considered as an investable asset. But it certainly is now. Although only a handful of bottles will be worth half a million, many are often worth more than enough to tempt fraudsters into making copies.
These copies can be very difficult to detect, because contemporary paper and glass are available, and no one knows – until the bottle is open – whether the wine within is genuine or not. Frequently the bottles are not purchased to be opened anyway, but instead to form part of a collection. It has been said that there is more “1945 Pétrus” for sale today in Las Vegas than the property ever made!
Famous wine fraudsters
When it comes to very old wine, more than about 50 years, which is often no longer drinkable or enjoyable in any case, and is usually bought as a museum piece rather than for your table, the phrase ‘buyer beware’ comes to mind.
However, where fraud follows art, detectives follow fraud. It is now possible – at a price – to have wines authenticated. Experts can examine in minute detail the printing, the capsule, the bottle, and – if visible – the cork. There are databases of genuine examples and known fakes that can be checked against. The most famous fraudster is Rudy Kurniawan, an Indonesian who practised in the United States. The subject of the film ‘Sour Grapes’, and our blogpost, he was convicted after having faked a particular wine that had never in fact existed.
During Kurniawan’s arrest, the FBI discovered a cache of fake labels and corks, and even some of his ‘recipes’ for making wines taste believably of what they claimed to be. Cleverly, he bought genuine bottles which he opened for tasting for a select group of customers, and then took orders for the other bottles of the same wine he had somehow ‘found’. The truth of course was, he simply made them himself, and pocketed the cash.
It is human nature not to want to publicly admit to having been ‘ripped-off’ and so the fraud was undiscovered for longer than it might otherwise have been. Some of his victims, however, were prepared to go after him and approached the American authorities. He was jailed in 2014 and, on release, deported from the States. There are rumours that he is active again in the Far East. Bizarrely, known examples of his fakes now even have a value of their own – rather like the paintings of Vermeer copyist Han van Meegeren. Certainly, a great many of Kurniawan’s fake bottles still exist, and occasionally appear for sale at auctions and via other unscrupulous sales channels.
Other famous fakers include Hardy Rodenstock who created the so-called Jefferson bottles using technology that did not exist when he claimed they were made. These people are high profile. However, it is estimated that fraudulent wine costs the industry over $300 million, according to IBM. The problem is more wide-ranging than just fine wine, however. Even basic wine may be counterfeit. Fake Jacob’s Creek (a $ 10-a-bottle wine) was discovered in the UK in 2011 and is believed to have originated in China. Despite the word “Australia” being misspelt (as ‘Austrlia’) on the label, the wine was convincing enough to have made its way into mainstream distribution.
The wine industry fights back
The wine industry is fighting back. Today’s fine wines have labels, bottles, corks, and capsules with many built-in anti-counterfeiting measures. They sometimes have QR codes and individual lot numbers which allow the producer to trace the provenance of a particular bottle.
There is research in Australia and America into analysis of the liquid without opening the bottle, through the glass, to determine its authenticity. This procedure is not – yet – completely reliable, and remains very expensive, but it will surely become guaranteed and affordable in time.
However, the problem with all these techniques is that they can only determine the authenticity of a bottle of wine you have already purchased! That may be too late.
As a buyer, you can pay attention to the label, cork, and the level and sediment of wine in the bottle (our article has details here). However, by far the most important measure you can take as a wine investor and buyer is to trust your supplier.
In order to not fall prey to unscrupulous fraudsters, wine investors should look for suppliers who purchase directly from the château, or negociant, and then store carefully for you. At Vindome, we go further using the latest blockchain processes, and NFC tagging, to guarantee the provenance of the cases we sell directly from the producers. As time passes, such guarantees of authenticity will become almost as important a part of the value as the wine itself.
Download the Vindome App and continue your journey into fine wine investment and drinking with the peace of mind that we have taken every measure possible to ensure the authenticity of every bottle and case that we supply.