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.

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.

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.

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.

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