How big a problem is counterfeit wine?

Wine, beer, and other potent potables.
Sept. 12 2007 10:50 AM

Excuse Me, Waiter, There's Fake Wine in My Glass

How big a problem is counterfeit wine?

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However, it is not absolutely certain that any or all of those magnums were knockoffs. Sixty years ago, many now-venerable wineries such as Lafleur, Petrus, and Cheval Blanc sold much of their production in bulk to merchants and private clients who bottled the stuff themselves. With many of these wines, the paper trails are meager or nonexistent: Where the wines ended up, in what quantities, and in what formats they were put under cork (750 ml, magnums, etc.) is often unclear. No question, this dearth of information is a problem that counterfeiters can easily exploit, as is the fact that many of the people now buying wines like the '47 Lafleur have never tasted them before and thus have little way of gauging their authenticity. But given the complicated histories behind many old bottles, it is reasonable to wonder if wine fraud is really as pervasive as Molyneux-Berry contends and all this press coverage suggests.

To get another take on the issue, I spoke with Allen Meadows, the pre-eminent Burgundy critic. Meadows, whose publication is called Burghound, has probably tasted more rare Burgundies than any person alive, and he figures that about 10 percent of the pre-1960 wines that cross his lips these days are outright frauds. He has no doubt that the major auction houses have waved through plenty of wines of dubious provenance—it is not in their interest to be overly skeptical. But he says that while auctioneers have an obvious incentive to play down the counterfeiting problem, others have reason to talk it up. He suggests that some wineries are embarrassed by the fact that economic circumstances once obliged them to sell in bulk and are thus eager to disavow older wines that they didn't bottle themselves. Intriguingly, he also thinks that claiming fraud has become fashionable in certain wine circles—a mark of connoisseurship. Some collectors, he says, now throw around these allegations as a way of showing off their knowledge and the acuity of their palates.

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Meadows also points out that authenticity is a slippery concept as fine wine is concerned. Until fairly recently, wineries customarily reconditioned older Bordeauxs and Burgundies, a process that sometimes involved topping up the bottles with wines from younger vintages. Not only that: Merchants in Britain and Belgium, upon receiving new vintages from Bordeaux and Burgundy, habitually blended in wines from other vintages (and sometimes other places) in order to make the new arrivals more pleasing to their clients. This wasn't necessarily viewed as cheating; it was considered good customer service. Meadows estimates that about 20 percent of the older wines he tastes nowadays show signs of having been so doctored. Several years ago, he sampled a négociant-bottled 1959 Grands-Echezeaux (a grand cru red Burgundy) in the company of the firm's current director, who freely admitted that the wine included some 1985 Grands-Echezeaux.

But that type of candor is rare. The prevalence of such bottles, and the reluctance of many wineries to admit that they used to perform face-lifts, has forced Meadows to adopt a kind of coded language—to carefully phrase the red flags he raises. If, for instance, a wine's color is suspiciously deep for its vintage, he will describe it as "remarkably youthful." Likewise, if it tastes abnormally fresh, he will write that it is "not consistent with my experience." Meadows says he uses the finely calibrated wording in part because it is not always possible to conclusively determine that a wine has been tampered with and he doesn't want to make false accusations. But it also reflects an understanding that authenticity is a complicated subject and that many older wines were adulterated simply because that was the thing to do back in the day. This, coupled with the knowledge that a lot of now-rare wines were bottled and labeled in multiple locations and that some perfectly legitimate old wines are capable of defying their age, has led Meadows to take a more nuanced view of this issue than he held in the past. "I've become very circumspect about automatically saying that a wine is a fraud," he told me.

As for that empty bottle of '69 La Tâche, a call to Romanée-Conti cleared up the mystery: During the 1960s and most of the '70s, the La Tâche label didn't include the circumflex. It was reintroduced in 1978. Now that its authenticity has been confirmed, maybe the '69 will finally demonstrate some talismanic power and deliver a winning lottery ticket: Empty bottles of La Tâche are nice, but full ones are better.