by Linda L. Kane
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I became interested in the forging of wine after reading an article in the Wall Street Journal. I grew obsessed and researched every article I could find about the theft and counterfeiting of everything from low-end table wine to more expensive wine. All around my office were papers full of information, so I had this thought: why not write a book about it and have it centered in the Central Valley of California? Below is just a small hint of my exploration into the underbelly of the wine world.
Just a few weeks ago, the French police discovered a large cache of Cotes du Rhone…but it was all fake. It was bulk stuff of no particular distinction, and the CEO of the company was charged with fraud. This was just the latest in a long series of such discoveries in recent years, and further proof that counterfeiters target cheap wines just as readily as the grand crushes.
The name Domaine Ponsot will ring a bell with those who follow the wine-fraud news. In a story made famous by the documentary Sour Grapes, the domain’s proprietor, Laurent Ponsot, attended a 2008 wine auction in New York where fake bottles of Ponsot wines were offered for sale. The consignor was Rudy Kurniawan, a high-profile collector from California.
An investigation into Mr. Kuriawan’s dealings culminated in a search of his Arcadia, California home, which turned out to be filled with the tools of wine fakery: counterfeit labels, blank corks, and empty bottles to be filled. Mr. Kurniawan went on trial in New York for counterfeiting and was convicted in 2014. He was ordered to pay $28.4 million in restitutions to seven of his victims, and to forfeit $20 million in property. He is serving a 10-year sentence in federal prison.
Counterfeit wines are sold at many places. Auction houses and eBay have had a massive problem with people selling fakes, but the vast majority of fake wine is made in Europe. There are at least five counterfeit wine rings working the wine circuits.
Though quite a few high-profile seizures of counterfeit Chateau Petrus and Domine de la Romanee-Conti (DRC) have been made in France in recent years, the sentences have been so light they hardly seem like deterrents at all. A Russian counterfeiter got a mere two-year jail term in France for selling 400 bottles of fake DRC, but the sentence was suspended, and he walked.
Some European wineries, including Domain de la Romanee-Conti, are working to combat fraud. A couple of methods that have been adopted include invisible ink, holograms, and serial numbers on labels, as well as embossing directly on the bottles and hanging proof tags around the bottles’ necks. A form of protection is a registry where collectors could provide information about wines and their histories, which could then be accessed by other collectors. A similar method is used in the diamond trade.
So how can you tell if the bottle of wine you purchased is real or fake? No one can tell by taking a taste test, this has been proven over and over again. Wine is a living thing, and it changes with time; no one knows what the original bottle of the Jefferson-Lafitte tasted like.
What you can do is look for inconsistencies in the bottle, the labels, and the corks to see if the wines were actually produced the year noted on the label, although it is harder to fake the newer, more exceptional wines because many bottles are outfitted with anti-counterfeiting technology on the labels and bottles.
And don’t think it’s just your rare wines that are being counterfeited; $10 to $20-dollar bottles of wine are being faked. You can produce them in vast quantities, and nobody is likely to catch you. If you figure $50 a case and you move 200 cases, it’s a pretty good living.
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