I have seen and had my share of fake wines. I was having dinner the other night with Geddy Lee of Rush and he reminded me of the time we opened a bottle of 1961 Paul Jaboulet Aîné Hermitage La Chapelle that was bogus. I don’t remember exactly what the bottle actually was, but it wasn’t the 1961 La Chapelle, which is a 100-point legend. I drank it in Hong Kong last December, and it was amazing.
There are lots of fakes out there. The trophy labels continue to get more expensive and rarer every day. This means more money for the counterfeiters, whomever they may be. Part of the problem is the cavalier attitude of some wine merchants and auction houses. They say that they take precautions against bogus bottles, but I have my doubts. Moreover, a lot of merchants don't have the knowledge to make the judgment call if a bottle is fake or not. What are consumers to do?
I don't have the solution to the problem. Just take care. And buy from sources you trust.
A recent e-mail concerning some allegedly fake 1989 Rayas is a case and point. This e-mail is sort of long, and I am going to show you most of the e-mail, so hang in there. The writer had put 10 bottles of 1989 Rayas in auction, but they were pulled from the sale at the last minute because the auction house, which will remain unnamed, thought they were fake. Good for them. The auctioneer said that the bottles had top labels that read “Réserve” instead of “Réservé.” I believe both are correct in French, depending on the tense, but it's listed in our database as Réservé.
Anyway, here is part of the e-mail from our reader:
“With my agreement, this was pulled from the auction pending further investigation, which was to send a bottle to E. Reynaud, the current owner of Château Rayas. He tasted the wine and reported back that this was not an '89 Rayas and that he felt it did not even come from his cellar …
"I have had two bottles from this case, one soon after release and one several years later; my recollection was that they were not as good as I expected them to be, but did not concern myself over this. In any case, recently, I was able to arrange a tasting of another bottle of mine with a friend who had some '89 Rayas he had secured from another distributor, but the same importer. His bottle had the correct number of accents on the Réservé, but interestingly, on the main front label of this bottle and also on mine, 'Medord' was misspelled as 'Medfort.' The back of his did not have any label and mine had an alcohol warning label.
"In opening the wines, we found the corks were slightly different (mine being a bit longer), and the printing on the cork, though identical, was in a slightly different font. In appearance, my wine was lighter and reddish, his was much darker. On the nose, mine initially was quite pleasant, but quickly faded; his gradually opened up and remained intense throughout the evening. As for taste, mine was flat and washed out compared to the other which was complex, smoky, with dark red fruit and a very long finish …
"Since then, I discovered that a friend had also bought a case of '89 Rayas ... and his labels are the same as mine, and the wine in the bottle looks light and reddish like mine.
"Now the story gets more interesting. One wine collector friend of mine has an '88 Rayas, which in the bottle looks dark and the Réserve has only one accent as my '89 Rayas, and the front label has the incorrect 'Medfort' spelling. He also has an '89 Rayas that has the correct Réservé and 'Medford' spelling. Finally, I have another wine collector friend who has some '89 Rayas with both labels exactly like mine. When I told him all of this, he opened a bottle. Unlike my wine, it was dark and complex; it was a bit corked but that blew away with time and drank like the other '89 Rayas that he has had in the past. However, he also has '90 Rayas with the correct Réservé but the main label has 'Medfort'!
"It is well-known, as Robert Parker has written, Jacques Reynaud, the owner at the time the '89s were bottled, was not particularly well-organized, or some would even say, rather sloppy in how he did things in his cellar. I doubt the winery would now own up to anything. Even so, I wonder how many different permutations of different labels and different wines came from his cellar as '89 Rayas. It is difficult for me to believe that there were multiple people outside the winery committing fraud at the same time on the same wine. Furthermore, since I and the others bought these wines as soon as they were released at $40/bottle, I wonder who would have gone to the effort of committing fraud at that time at those relatively low prices; at the current $600/bottle, I could better understand the logic, but not the ethics.
"There seems to be a great deal of confusion about the Rayas during this time period. Perhaps being in the business, you are already aware of this problem. I suspect that there must be many people who still have Rayas from '88, '89, and perhaps other years, which may be fraudulent, intentional or not, or at the minimum mislabeled by the winery. I think that you would be doing your readers a service if you were to find out a bit more about this and bring your research on the subject into the light of day via a column in the Wine Spectator."
STILL THERE? MY HEAD IS SPINNING TOO. I NEED ANOTHER CAFÉ LATTE …
But seriously, this is, indeed, a confusing case. But I am not surprised. I visited the cellar of Rayas three or four times in the 1980s. And I tasted and spoke with Jacques Reynaud. And the guy was very unorganized, to say the least. His cellar was filthy. I still remember tasting from a glass that he blew the dust out of before handing it to me. I asked him, as he drew some red from a cask, what wine we were tasting, and he responded, "Not sure. What do you want it to be?"
Reynaud was not very fond of wine critics. So maybe he was just giving me a hard time. But he bottled cask by cask, and some casks were better than others. Moreover, he had different labels for different markets and if one had a typo or two, he didn't care. That I am sure of.
I have had Rayas 1989 a number of times in the last two years, and I can say that I have experienced bottles as those mentioned above. I don't remember the labels. But some of the wines have been extraordinary—slowly developing fabulous crushed berries and floral aromas—while others have been rather short and flat.
That's the problem with all of this. Sometimes you just don't know—which makes it even more frustrating, even sort of scary.