Charles Curtis, a Master of Wine and former head of wine for Christie’s in both Asia and the Americas, explains that authenticating wine begins with contacting the owner to request any documentation (receipts and so on). Next comes a physical inspection of the bottle. Experts check the capsule, cork, label, and glass to see if the materials are consistent with the stated time and place of production, if the branding is consistent, and if any of the pieces show signs of tampering. An examiner can also use a high-powered flashlight to examine the cork through the bottle and see if the wine itself is the correct color and contains the proper amount of sediment for its age.
“It is seldom possible to establish authenticity with 100 percent accuracy,” Curtis tells me, “but these methods normally give enough evidence to form a credible opinion of authenticity.”
So how to get at the problem of checking the wine itself? One method has been to enlist carbon dating to approximate the age of the liquid in a bottle, but this can prove imprecise. Instead of looking for carbon, a variation on this approach searches for the isotope cesium-137, an artificial form of radioactivity that was created through nuclear testing and is therefore not present in wines bottled before the advent of such technology. The isotope is absorbed from the soil by the roots of grapevines, and gets locked into the bottle during the winemaking process. Bill Koch’s camp famously sought out Philippe Hubert, a French physicist who had experimented with cesium-137 testing, to have one of his alleged Jeffersonian bottles tested in a lab beneath the Alps on the French-Italian border.
Another answer, which doesn’t require traveling to a remote section of the Alps, may have been found in a device that’s emerged in just the last year. It’s called the Coravin System, and it uses science to do magic—namely, to extract wine from a bottle without removing or even damaging the cork. Coravin is the fanciest corkscrew you’ve ever seen, with a sleek upright design that lets it sit in its holder like a tiny rocket waiting to launch. The creation of medical device inventor Greg Lambrecht, it works by passing a fine, hollow needle through the cork. The bottle is pressurized with argon, an inert gas, that pushes the wine into tiny holes on the side of the needle and out through the device, into your glass.
“The cork is elastic—it’s actually one of the most elastic solids we’ve ever discovered in nature,” Lambrecht says. “I’d made medical needles that did very little damage to the things they went through, so the insight was, ‘Hey, I could use this to get through the cork.’ ”
Coravin retails for $299 and, for the moment, has two main markets: home consumers and people who sell wine for business (restaurants, distributors, etc.). Coravin allows them to pour or sell a single glass without setting off a ticking oxidation clock that can turn the best of wine into something resembling vinegar. Lambrecht’s initial idea for the device came about because he wanted to keep drinking good wine a glass at a time while his wife was pregnant, and needed a way to preserve the remainder of the bottle.
In a market besieged by fraud and chicanery, could Coravin be the solution? Maybe. Using Coravin to sample a wine prior to a sale would have to be disclosed at auction and could potentially devalue the bottle. But far more problematic is this simple fact: Lots of people don’t know what old wine is supposed to taste like. “People may taste a bottle of genuine old wine that’s matured and may not like the flavors,” Curtis says. “There are some tasters who are superb judges of such matters, and there are others who are not.” Wine tasting, after all, is subjective. For all but the most refined of palates, it has to do as much with what we think of a bottle as what we know. If we think a wine is expensive—and forgers think they know we think that—chances are it will taste that way, too.