The problem of fake wine did not go away when a Californian prison cell door slammed shut on Rudy Kurniawan in 2014. As the fraud detective Maureen Downey of Chai Consulting is constantly pointing out, no one doubts that the market is awash with fakes. She quotes the generally accepted figure that one in five bottles of fine wine on the market – 20% – are bogus. But she goes further: “Some vendors may be selling more than 50% counterfeits. It’s estimated that 70% of the Château Lafite sold in China is fake, for example.” She refers to “current” counterfeiters – “and when I say current, I mean in the last four weeks.”
Some fakes are easy to spot: the photocopied label that says Panfaids instead of Penfolds, or Popus One instead of Opus One. Many more, though, are works of art in themselves. In Sour Grapes, the brilliant documentary about Kurniawan’s fall, his former friends (all of whom he was defrauding) pay tribute to the skill with which he recreated bottles. Label paper was aged by baking or with tea, tobacco or shellac, corks were stamped, ink was sourced to be as authentic as possible, wooden cases were stencilled.
Downey, whose company Chai Consulting runs a series of seminars on wine fraud, has a checklist of tell-tale signs. “Unicorns”, for example, are mythical bottles. It was unicorns at an Acker Merrall & Condit auction in New York that prompted the authorities to focus on Kurniawan. Acker’s John Kapon had authenticated Kurniawan-sourced lots of Domaine Ponsot Clos Saint-Denis from 1945 onwards – but the Domaine’s first bottling of that vineyard was 1982.
Similarly, magnums of 1945 Romanée Conti from Domaine de la Romanée Conti are in circulation, but there were no large formats produced that year. “I have touched as much counterfeit 1945 DRC as was ever legitimately made,” Downey says.
Labels: are they embossed? Are those cuts and abrasions too regular? Can you see glue around the tear? Most importantly, does the label fluoresce under UV light? If it does, and the wine is pre-1957, then you almost certainly have a fake, as ultra-white paper was not introduced until 1957. Printers: was the ink applied by a household dot-matrix, or ink jet? The former will show under a microscope, while the latter will scrape off. Smell the labels, Downey says – “if it’s genuinely old it will smell old”. She loves the feel of old bottles.
Capsules and corks give vital clues. Downey found a recycling logo (not introduced until the 1970s) on the capsule of a 1959 de Vogüé Musigny; Bordeaux corks should be at least 52mm long, and you should look out for “Ah-So” marks from the two-pronged extractor – if it’s been pulled before, why?
Glass is the most difficult thing to fake. Pre-1850 bottles were hand-blown, while the three-piece mould was introduced circa 1915 – look out for bottles that are seemingly old but don’t have any irregularities.
Counterfeiting wish list
The 1945 Château Mouton-Rothschild – the legendary “Victory Vintage” – is the most-faked bottle ever, but there is a long list of classics that counterfeiters go for. Beware of the best vintages in any region – 1947, 48, 49, the great 50s vintages, 1961, 64, 71, 78, 82, 85 – but fakers also favour historic dates like 1989 (the fall of the Berlin Wall). And it’s not all old bottles. Fake DRCs, from vintages 2004 to 2008, are surfacing.
The most counterfeited wines are predictably the most expensive: blue chip Bordeaux, Burgundy, Italy, Rhone and Germany. Amongst the cult Californians, only Screaming Eagle has fallen victim so far. Be wary of anything claiming to be from the great Belgian merchant Vandermeulen which was active in the first half of the 20th century, especially their 1947 bottlings.
Producers are fighting back, with ever-more complex labels (Napa’s Harlan is particularly difficult to fake, Downey says), traceable ink, DNA signatures, and tamper-proof capsules. Downey has just launched the Chai Wine Vault, which uses Bitcoin’s “blockchain” technology to give a wine an immutable digital signature.
She claims it’s foolproof: the digital vault is unassailable. But, as she reminds her audience at the beginning of her seminar, “If there’s money to be made, criminals will find a way.”
Most frequently faked vintages
Anything 1700s or 1800s: 1811, 1864, 1865, 1870, 1899,1900, 1911, 1921, 1923, 1928, 1929, 1934, 1937, 1945, 1947, 1948, 1949, 1950, 1952, 1955, 1959, 1961, 1964, 1971, 1978, 1982, 1985, 1990, 2000, 2005
Domaine de la Romanée Conti in 2004, 05, 06, 07, 08
Most frequently faked wines
Burgundy: Domaine de la Romanée-Conti; Henri Jayer; Domaine Dujac; Coche-Dury; Leflaive; Dme Ponsot; Ramonet; Comtes de Vogüé
Bordeaux: Château Cheval Blanc; Château Petrus; Château Lafite Rothschild; Château Latour; Château Mouton Rothschild; Château Lafleur; Château Le Pin; Château Latour à Pomerol; Château Rayas; Château Ausone; Château d’Yquem
Rhone: Jaboulet La Chapelle Hermitage
Italy: Sassicaia; Ornellaia; Soldera Brunello di Montalcino; Bruno Giacosa Barolo; Gaja
Germany: Egon Müller Scharzhofberger Eiswein
California: Screaming Eagle
Anything claiming to be Vandermeulen