Why It’s So Easy to Get Away With Faking a Pricey Bottle of Wine

Commentary about business and finance.
June 20 2014 11:03 AM

Labels for Less

Faking a pricey bottle of wine is a lot easier than you’d think.

Illustration by Robert Neubecker

Illustration by Robert Neubecker

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.

Alison Griswold Alison Griswold

Alison Griswold is a Slate staff writer covering business and economics.

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.

Advertisement

“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.

TODAY IN SLATE

Politics

Talking White

Black people’s disdain for “proper English” and academic achievement is a myth.

Hong Kong’s Protesters Are Ridiculously Polite. That’s What Scares Beijing So Much.

The One Fact About Ebola That Should Calm You: It Spreads Slowly

Natasha Lyonne Is Coming to the Live Culture Gabfest. Are You?

A Jaw-Dropping Political Ad Aimed at Young Women, Apparently

The XX Factor
Oct. 1 2014 4:05 PM Today in GOP Outreach to Women: You Broads Like Wedding Dresses, Right?
Crime

Operation Backbone

How White Boy Rick, a legendary Detroit cocaine dealer, helped the FBI uncover brazen police corruption.

Music

How Even an Old Hipster Can Age Gracefully

On their new albums, Leonard Cohen, Robert Plant, and Loudon Wainwright III show three ways.

Tattoo Parlors Have Become a Great Investment

This Gargantuan Wind Farm in Wyoming Would Be the Hoover Dam of the 21st Century

Moneybox
Oct. 1 2014 8:34 AM This Gargantuan Wind Farm in Wyoming Would Be the Hoover Dam of the 21st Century To undertake a massively ambitious energy project, you don’t need the government anymore.
Behold
Oct. 1 2014 6:59 PM EU’s Next Digital Honcho Says Celebs Who Keep Nude Photos in the Cloud Are “Stupid”
  News & Politics
Politics
Oct. 2 2014 11:01 AM It Wasn’t a Secret A 2013 inspector general report detailed all of the Secret Service’s problems. Nobody cared.
  Business
Business Insider
Oct. 2 2014 11:16 AM Some McDonald's Monopoly Properties Matter More
  Life
The Vault
Oct. 2 2014 11:07 AM Mapping 1890 Manhattan's Crazy-Quilt of Immigrant Neighborhoods
  Double X
The XX Factor
Oct. 1 2014 5:11 PM Celebrity Feminist Identification Has Reached Peak Meaninglessness
  Slate Plus
Behind the Scenes
Oct. 1 2014 3:24 PM Revelry (and Business) at Mohonk Photos and highlights from Slate’s annual retreat.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Oct. 2 2014 10:36 AM How Bad Will Adam Sandler’s Netflix Movies Be?
  Technology
Future Tense
Oct. 2 2014 11:01 AM Surge Pricing Is Not Price Gouging
  Health & Science
Medical Examiner
Oct. 2 2014 9:49 AM In Medicine We Trust Should we worry that so many of the doctors treating Ebola in Africa are missionaries?
  Sports
Sports Nut
Oct. 1 2014 5:19 PM Bunt-a-Palooza! How bad was the Kansas City Royals’ bunt-all-the-time strategy in the American League wild-card game?