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?

Illustration by Mark Alan Stamaty. Click image to expand.

I keep two empty bottles of wine on my desk: A 1969 Domaine de la Romanée-Conti La Tâche and a 1978 DRC La Tâche, different vintages of the same fabled grand cru red burgundy. They serve as reminders: They remind me to buy Powerball tickets every week, in the hope that I might one day have the means to make a habit of such wines. But I recently noticed a discrepancy between the two bottles: The '78 had the requisite circumflex over the "a" in Tâche, but the '69 did not. A few years ago, I would have assumed that the missing circumflex was a typographical error. Now, however, I suspected something more nefarious: Could this have been a counterfeit wine? It is a question being asked about lots of old bottles these days. The fine-wine market is allegedly awash in fake Bordeauxs and Burgundies, and worried oenophiles are suddenly wondering if what's on the label is truly what's inside the glass.

The issue of counterfeit wines has burst to the fore (subscription required) and, recently, into the pages of The New Yorker thanks to a lawsuit filed last year by billionaire industrialist Bill Koch against a German music promoter-cum-wine merchant named Hardy Rodenstock. In 1985, Rodenstock came into possession of several bottles of wine that he claimed had originally belonged to Thomas Jefferson. He refused to reveal who sold him the bottles, all of which were engraved with the letters  "Th. J."; he said only that the wines were found in a cellar in Paris. Although the details were suspiciously vague, Rodenstock had no trouble finding takers for the wines. At a Christie's auction in London in 1985, Malcolm Forbes paid $156,450—still a record price for a single bottle—for what was said to be a 1787 Château Lafite  owned by Jefferson.

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In 1988, Koch acquired four of the bottles for $500,000. Two years ago, when he sought to authenticate their provenance, he discovered that Jefferson, a diligent record-keeper, had made no reference to any such bottles. He hired a team of investigators to examine the wines, and they concluded that the initials on the bottles were fake, which prompted Koch to sue Rodenstock for fraud. The suit shook the wine world, since Rodenstock was one of its major players, and the case is now in federal court in New York. Rodenstock, who is apparently in Europe, has refused to cooperate with the probe; on Aug. 14, the magistrate judge recommended that a default judgment be entered against him. It also turns out that his real name isn't Rodenstock: Koch's investigators learned that he was born Meinhard Goerke, a point he conceded to The New Yorker.

With its outsized personalities, posh locations, and generous serving of schadenfreude (wine experts hoodwinked!), the Rodenstock saga is an amazing one. (It is so compelling that Ben Wallace, the former executive editor of Philadelphia magazine and a friend, has made it the subject of a terrific forthcoming book, The Billionaire's Vinegar.) But apart from the as-yet-unproven allegations against Rodenstock, just how serious is wine's counterfeiting problem?

Certainly, the incentive to manufacture fraudulent blue-chip wines has increased. The Koch lawsuit and the apparent unmasking of Rodenstock come at a time when fine-wine sales are soaring. The global wealth boom has created a huge increase in demand for the most acclaimed Bordeauxs and Burgundies, both newer vintages and older ones, and it is feared this upswing has also created a bull market for phony Latours and Ausones. Law enforcement is taking the issue seriously, as are wineries—and they have good reason to do so, according to David Molyneux-Berry, who ran the wine department at Sotheby's and is now assisting Koch with his lawsuit. In a recent, head-turning speech in Napa, Molyneux-Berry suggested that wine fraud is rampant and alleged that several American importers and merchants, and possibly also one U.S.-based auction house, are knowingly selling fakes (he gave no names). To substantiate his claim, Molyneux-Berry noted that one of Château Lafleur's late owners had said that only five magnums of the 1947 Lafleur were produced, yet 18 magnums purportedly containing this legendary Bordeaux have been auctioned off in the last three years alone.