In 2006, Atlanta wine collector Julian LeCraw Jr. paid $91,400 for a single bottle of 1787 Château d’Yquem, at the time the most ever for a white wine. That purchase, while stunning, was dwarfed in both size and renown by that of one Christopher Forbes, who bid £105,000 (some $157,000) in 1985 for a 1787 Château Lafite etched with the initials “Th.J.,” and advertised as formerly belonging to Thomas Jefferson. The landmark sale inspired other ambitious collectors, including billionaire business tycoon Bill Koch, to seek out their own Jeffersonian wine. In late 1988, Koch spent about half a million dollars to add four of the famed bottles to his personal cellar.
The world of elite wine collecting, as such purchases demonstrate, is an expensive and high-stakes hunting game. Connoisseurs such as Koch, for whom the money is no object, will spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on rarities that promise to enhance their collections. But as prices for these bottles have soared, so has another risk—one that LeCraw and Koch both discovered the hard way. The most esteemed and alluring of bottles just might turn out to be fake.
While experts agree that it’s hard to size up the impact of forgery on the wine industry, a recent spate of busts has shone a spotlight on how pervasive the problem might be. This past October, European police arrested seven people in connection with an international counterfeiting ring that sold 400 bottles of fake Romanée-Conti wine, among the world’s most expensive, for more than 2 million euros ($2.7 million). A few months earlier, police in China arrested more than 10 suspects linked to millions of dollars in fake wine sales after uncovering counterfeiting equipment in a raid. LeCraw is suing the seller of his bogus bottle, Antique Wine Co., for $25 million. And in December, a federal jury convicted famed rare wines dealer Rudy Kurniawan of peddling tens of millions of dollars of homebrewed mixes with sham labels.
“Making forgeries of wine bottles, unfortunately, is really not all that difficult and time-consuming, especially since one could assume that making a ‘spot-on’ counterfeit watch would be much more difficult and time-consuming,” says Mark Solomon, the wine director at Leland Little Auction & Estate Sales and CEO of TrueBottle.com, an online database for wine collectors.
Some forgers will print their own labels to alter cheap bottles; others will buy empties of the best years and makes, then refill them with other wines. That means the glass bottles themselves can also fetch substantial sums. The empty bottle of a prized 1982 Château Lafite Rothschild might alone fetch $1,500. “But if you go to 1983 or 1981,” Solomon says, “the price of the bottle is a fraction of what an ’82 goes for.” A clever forger might therefore alter the last digit of the date, refill the bottle, and sell it for several multiples of what the empty cost.
Wine forgeries are as easy to pull off as they are hard to weed out. The bottles are rarely sold directly to auction houses, instead winding their way into collectors’ cellars through a series of sales, where they can hide among dozens of authentic bottles. And while the easiest way to check whether or not your 1982 Château Lafite Rothschild is the real deal might be to taste what’s inside, you can hardly pop the cork off a rare vintage before it goes up for bidding.