‘Wine Detectives’ and the fight against counterfeits
With prices from Napa Valley’s most expensive wine producer, Screaming Eagle, topping $2,500 per bottle at auction for the flagship red and more than $5,500 for the rare Sauvignon Blanc, the winery’s website is obligated to present something in addition to the usual marketing advertisements. on the ideal exposure to the sun and the toasted French oak: An interactive authentication code to enter and a telephone number to call to be certain that your trophy bottle contains Screaming Eagle’s wine.
The stuffy and generally decent world of fine wine may not seem to most casual observers a likely hotbed of fraud and crime, but it has been that way for a long time. Pliny the Elder, the first-century Roman authority on just about everything, once lamented that “even our nobility never appreciate genuine wines.”
According to a study by industry group ABL (American Beverage Licensees), wine fraud is now a global problem estimated at $9 billion a year, costing thousands of legitimate industry jobs and depriving governments of billions. dollars in tax revenue. Criminal activity encompasses Ponzi schemes, burglaries, bank fraud, scams, smugglers, mysterious warehouse fires and high-tech counterfeiters. It thrives both as a large-scale wholesale business and as a bottle-by-bottle retail business, such as in China, where, according to one report, a full bottle of Chateau Lafite Rothschild 1982 from Bordeaux costs 5 $900, and an empty bottle of the same bottle – which can then be refilled – for $1,500.
The wine industry can learn to look back with a tinge of sad nostalgia on scammers who made headlines like German Hardy Rodenstock in the 1980s and 1990s, and Los Angeles-based Indonesian Rudy Kurniawan in the 2000s. They were kitchen sink mixers, the wine world’s equivalent of the gifted forger who paints Pollocks that confuse the experts.
Neither were exactly small-timers – Kurniawan is estimated to have sold around $34 million worth of dodgy wines – but they were operators on a personal scale, getting by as much on their insinuating charm and plausibility as true connoisseurs than on their ability to “discover” ultrararities. like, say, the famous cache of “Th.J.” from Rodenstock. 18th century Bordeaux bottles, believed to belong to Thomas Jefferson.
But wine fraud has evolved. Jamie Ritchie, global president of Sotheby’s Wine and Spirits in New York, was surprised as a young appraiser in 1994 to discover a rare batch of wine that appeared to be counterfeit (and Sotheby’s refused to sell it). Now Ritchie has seen it all. “There is a growing degree of sophistication in counterfeiting today that didn’t exist 20 years ago,” he notes.
As Michael Egan, a Bordeaux-based “wine sleuth” who has testified in a number of famous cases, including the Kurniawan case, puts it: “We are moving away from artisans alone for something far more nefarious, which are fake bottles made using industrial products. processes – caps, labels, even bottles produced by groups with access to sophisticated machinery.
A game of cat and mouse
High-tech digital printers are not the least of the modern tools of criminals, which have allowed them to keep pace with the cat-and-mouse game that saw wine producers introduce holograms, ultraviolet printing, invisible serial numbers and other sophisticated anti-counterfeiting measures for their labels.
In a recent investigation of a suspect batch from Burgundy’s rarefied Domaine de la Romanée Conti, Egan found that “the labels were produced very professionally with only the slightest difference”. Upon review, Egan realized what was troubling him: “The vertical angle of the lettering wasn’t quite right.”
The photocopier has been replaced by digital printers and the lone wine counterfeiter has been supplanted by organized crime. “A lot of people hear about ‘organized crime’ and think of the Mafia,” says Maureen Downey of San Francisco-based WineFraud.com, one of the world’s leading authentication experts. “But it’s much bigger, organized internationally; scary stuff from Asia and Russia. It’s not Joey Donuts. ”
Today’s crooks, according to Downey, learned a lot from Kurniawan’s downfall. “No 1: Don’t do ‘old and rare,’ because that’s hard to pull off,” says Downey. Instead, today’s large-scale wine fraud operations are more likely to focus on recent vintages and sometimes cheaper wines. “It’s not just about $1,000 bottles anymore,” she says. “We see $40 bottles of counterfeit Brunello. It’s one of the rules of counterfeiting, you know? You can either make a few $100s or a whole bunch of fives.
The anti-counterfeiting industry has not fallen asleep either. In addition to printing authentication measures on labels, they laser engrave bottles and employ increasingly ingenious scannable chips and labels. One company, the French Prooftag, uses high/low tech solutions that it calls “chaosmetrics”. The “chaos” part comes from blowing bubbles or near-microscopic fibers like pick-up sticks and attaching them to ultra-thin surfaces. Each bubble constellation or fiber network is as unique as a snowflake and can be read from a terminal anywhere and checked against Prooftag’s database.
Downey herself is coming to market with a blockchain ledger-based anti-counterfeiting solution. But in the meantime, it relies on other modern methods and a lot of old-fashioned hard work. She recently uncovered what she believes to be a new French wine counterfeit ring by applying her tried and true process. Summoned to New York by a longtime customer, who wanted a routine check of a white Burgundy he had purchased from a new vendor, Downey and two team members spent a week going through their checklist. (measure labels, measure capsules, map everything with microscope photography, etc.) and realized they were dealing with one of the oldest scams in the book: “In every case of wine, we found that eight or nine bottles were real and three or four were fake.” At this price level, he was paying the scammer handsomely to turn, say, 12 cases of wine into 16.
“I prefer to look at this with optimism,” says Egan. “The industry is taking so much more trouble detecting them and fighting counterfeits. 10 or 15 years ago, people sold these wines without batting an eyelid. Now the databases of good bottles are growing and we are reporting bad bottles all the time. »
This article originally appeared in the September 2022 issue of penta magazine.