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The Mystery of Fake Bottles

Posted: Jan 26, 2007 4:38pm ET

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."


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.

Hoyt Hill Jr
Nashville, TN —  January 27, 2007 10:28am ET
JamesI have forwarded your blog to Martine Saunier, the US importer for Rayas, and will be very interested to hear her reaction!
Richard J Habeeb
staten island, new york —  January 27, 2007 10:30am ET
Wow, James...this is scary stuff. I now understand why people are so concerned with provenance and will pay more for documented bottles. But in this case provenance might not be of any help. We are not even protected in buying ex-chateau. Let's hope there are no more "disorganized" owners among us. I can only imagine the feeling if I was to go to auction with a case of prized wine which I had paid a hefty sum for and cellared expensively through it lifetime, only to be told that it was BOGUS.Where would I turn? Who could I sue those long years after? Like I said, scary stuff...one is not safe even in buying ex-chateau. Perhaps this is a terrible abberation. Let us hope so and, let us be ever vigilant and do all the research we can in buying our wines both for drinking and collecting. There are some bad people in our midsts.
James Suckling
 —  January 27, 2007 11:04am ET
Hoyt: Thanks. I have known Martine for 20 years. She's the best...
Jeffrey Brown
Canada —  January 27, 2007 2:21pm ET
Hello James,Sorry to be off topic, but the Casanova Di Neri 2002 Brunello became available at my retailer yesterday but sold out in 10 minutes (only 32 bottles were available). Instead I purchased the 2001 Valdicava Brunello. What qualities does the Casanova have (other than price) that the Valdicava doesn't that makes the Casanova number one in the top 100 while the Valdicava didn't make the list?Thanks.
James Suckling
 —  January 27, 2007 3:36pm ET
The 2001 Valdicava is much, much better than the 2002 Neri. The 2002 was a weak vintage for Tuscany. The reason the 2001 Valdicava was not in the top 100 was because of the limited number of bottles imported in the the US market.
Guus Hateboer
Netherlands —  January 27, 2007 4:24pm ET
I know, some think I am nuts, but I keep on saying that a chip in the cork is the solution to all evil. I bought 4 books today (3 of them wine books, I must admit), and all of them had a little chip hidden somewhere to tell the book seller exactly what the book was, the ISBN number, the price, the author, the publisher, etc. The cheapest was only 5,90 euro and the most expensive book was 39 euro. When they do it with books, why not with the top layer of the corks in a bottle of fine wine that may cost me 1600 euro? I rest my case.
Michael Culley
January 28, 2007 11:39am ET
I always wondered if availability was a criteria for the Top One Hundred. Gus, what you suggest is valid but....would it create a whole new category....cork hackers?
Todd Dewitt
Cincinnati, OH —  January 28, 2007 9:28pm ET
James, Most of the Dunn Howell Mountain Cab I own have wax tops--both 750ml and 1.5l bottlings. I have one 1987 with wax and one without (its foil). I called the winery and they couldn't remember if they produced both types that year. For my sake, I hope they did. Does anyone out there have both versions of 1987?
Thomas Bohrer
Hong Kong —  January 28, 2007 9:55pm ET
James, your point about the late Jaques Renauds cellar is 100% spot on. He is not the only wine maker who is known for not realy beeing to concerened about spelling and labels. I only need to mention Emanuel Rouget.......I have bottles of Rayas where the neck label ( which is the vintage label) has a different Vintage on the reverse side than on the front. I still have a case of Fonsalette 1990 where on the back it reads 1991. And trust me its 100% real. I paid Euro 50 for each bottles. Many Rayas dont even have a vintage on the cork. And yes some corks are longer than others. It is well known that the late Jaques labeled some of His Chateau Rayas Reserve with Fonsalette labels and vice versa... Lets not forget tht 1990 Rayas sold for Euro 25 Ex-Cellar for a long time....until a certain Mr R.P visited Chateau Rayas.....
Tom Hudson
Wilmington, Delaware —  January 29, 2007 7:27am ET
Did anyone ask the poster of the e-mail if he/she has the original receipts from his/her purchase of the 1989 Rayas? I know that as hard as I try, the details of purchases 15+ years prior sometime get confused. If he/she did have the original receipt, did they present that to the auction house? That would certainly help with a lot of provenance issues and, hopefully, with authenticity claims.Isn't keeping original receipts part of most collectors' cellars? It is with me.
David A Zajac
January 29, 2007 9:30am ET
Ditto on the original orders and receipts to document provenance - if you even think you might resell any part of your purchases, this is essential for that purpose.As for the 1989 Rayas, I bot one bottle at auction about 5 years ago and drank it about a year ago, and I can honestly say it was the best bottle of wine I have ever had. I will never forget the aromas and flavors contained in that wine, it was one of those life changing moments when you say to yourself "this is what life and wine is all about". In reading this, I feel fortunate that I had one of those "great" bottles instead of one of the thin or "off" bottles. I have been looking to buy more, this blog kind of scares me though, especially at $500 - $600 per bottle.
Pat Nicholson
San Jose, Ca —  February 6, 2007 1:39am ET
You are lucky, sir. I remember wearing out my cassette tape of 2112 with my single speaker "getto" blaster plastered to my ear to learn the lyrics. I saw Rush play at Shoreline in the Bay Area about 5 years ago. They played about a 3 hour set, including the complete 2112 suite and a lot of new stuff I didn't know but liked. Next time I open a Barolo, I think I'll put on some Red Barchetta. Cheers.

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