Midway through Acker Merrall & Condit's April 25 wine auction, held at the Manhattan restaurant Cru, auctioneer and Acker president John Kapon paused the fast-paced action to make an unusual announcement: Twenty-two lots of red Burgundy, identified in the catalog as rarities from the prestigious Domaine Ponsot in Morey-St.-Denis and estimated to sell for as much as $603,000, were being withdrawn from the sale "at the request of the domaine and with the consent of the consignor."
"I guess there were a couple of inconsistencies there, so we had to pull them," Kapon added. Inconsistencies may have been an understatement. According to Laurent Ponsot, the fourth-generation proprietor of the domaine, who had contacted Kapon after hearing about the sale, the wines were flat-out fakes—some of the wines were from vintages that the domaine never bottled.
The withdrawal of the purported Ponsot wines, all from the grand cru vineyards of Clos de la Roche and Clos St.-Denis, capped off a difficult few days for Acker, which last year boasted $59.86 million in sales, the highest of any American auction house. Two days before the auction, energy executive and wine collector William Koch filed a lawsuit against the firm, accusing it of selling him counterfeit wines in 2005 and 2006.
The withdrawal of Ponsot lots was just the latest sign that the problem of counterfeit wines is growing. As trophy wine prices have climbed to levels unimaginable a decade ago, auction houses, high-end retailers, collectors and their consultants have gone on high alert as skillful fakes of the priciest wines have infiltrated their rarified world. Any offering of a desirable vintage of Château Pétrus, for example, is now instantly suspect unless it has ironclad provenance.
But the best fakes are difficult to detect. Experts at Christie's, for example, recently debated for five months before deciding that three cases of Pétrus 1982 were bogus. "Even we had different opinions among us," said Richard Brierley, wine specialist at Christie's.
Ponsot's wines are certainly valuable—Christie's recently sold a bottle of the Clos de la Roche 1934 for $22,800. The withdrawn wines look real, but Laurent Ponsot is adamant that they cannot be. Six of the lots were various vintages of Clos St-Denis, ranging from 1945 (a single bottle estimated at $7,000 to $9,000) to 1971 (a full case estimated at $30,000 to $50,000). The problem, Ponsot said during an interview, is that, "My father, Jean-Marie, didn't begin to produce our Clos St-Denis until 1982. So how could the bottles say 1945, 1949, 1959, 1962, 1966 and 1971?"
|Among the suspect bottles in the Acker lot was one dated vintage 1929, five years before the domaine began making estate-bottled wines.|
Ponsot also pointed to a full-page photo in Acker's catalog of a quartet of Clos de la Roche bottles bearing the Domaine Ponsot label, including a 1929 (estimated at $14,000 to $19,000). "My grandfather, Hippolyte, would have made that wine," he said. "But he did not begin estate bottling until 1934. So a Clos de la Roche from 1929 from our domaine is impossible." The fact that Ponsot began estate bottling in 1934 is even stated in the catalog, in a history of the producer on the page opposite the photo.
Looking at the photos of the other lots, Ponsot was able to point out problems in all the bottles. One photo shows a case of 1962 Clos de la Roche bottles, all carrying a black and gold neck label saying "Reserve Nicolas," indicating that they had been selected and sold by France's largest wine retailing chain. But, said Ponsot, "We never sold any of our wine to Nicolas." As for the lumpy red wax caps on the 1962s, Ponsot said, "We never used that bloody wax," opting instead for smooth lead foil wrappers. Yet another inconsistency: All bottles in the catalog photos carry a shield-shaped shoulder vintage label embellished with a vine-leaf motif. But such labels were never used by the domaine, according to Ponsot. "My grandfather hand-stamped the old labels," he said. "In the evening, back when there was no television, he'd sit by the fireplace and sign the bottles by hand."
The Ponsot wines were among 71 lots from a trio of acclaimed producers (the others were Domaine Armand Rousseau and Domaine Georges Roumier), all consigned from what the catalog simply called "The Cellar." It was the sole source of a two-day Acker auction in October 2006 that grossed a record $24.7 million. Though unnamed in the catalog, the consignor was a young, Los Angeles-based collector named Rudy Kurniawan. He is "one of the biggest collectors on the planet," according to Kapon, who wrote in the catalog for the April 25 sale: "I can safely say that when it comes to old Roumier, old Rousseau, and old Ponsot, there is one place to go: 'THE' Cellar."
Not so safely, as it turned out. The first hint of trouble came a few days before the sale, Kapon said in an interview, when a client, Doug Barzelay, who was in communication with Ponsot, called to ask Kapon for additional photos and indicated that he thought there was a problem. "I then talked to Ponsot directly," Kapon said. "Based on that conversation, I decided to pull all the wines."
As Kapon announced that the Ponsot wines had been withdrawn to a packed house on the evening of the sale, one would-be bidder cursed loudly. Then the sale rolled on. In another corner, a slender man, his long hair bound in a ponytail, sat quietly—Ponsot himself. He had already planned to travel to the U.S. for some meetings, but changed his schedule to come a day early. "I wanted to be there to see for myself that those wines were not sold," he said. "I will not leave things as they are. I could have said nothing, and the Ponsot image would have still been big. But I have given my life to authenticity of all the appellations we have in Burgundy. I am not a rich man, but I have consulted with a lawyer and I will spend my money looking for the people who did this."
Kurniawan was also at Cru that evening. Like Ponsot, he hadn't been planning to attend, but decided to be on hand after learning that his wines had been withdrawn. Asked after the sale who he had acquired the wines from, Kurniawan, looking distressed, responded only, "We try our best to get it right, but it's Burgundy, and sometimes shit happens."
While that auction is history, troubling questions hang over the withdrawn lots which, at Ponsot's request, rest untouched in Acker's warehouse. In effect, they are being treated as evidence. The most immediate question: Where did Kurniawan acquire these wines? In a phone interview 10 days after the auction, he said, "I have a pretty good idea of where I bought them from, and I will be working directly with Laurent. We want to get to the bottom on this. My goal is that I just want the market to get healthy."
Auction houses are expected to do their own due diligence before offering wines of high value. In the case of the Kurniawan consignment, it appears that Kapon did not ask for evidence of provenance, relying instead on the track record of Kurniawan's wines and on his own extensive personal tastings of the wines with the owner and other collectors. All auctioneers check bottles for signs of authenticity, even cutting the foils so they can see the brandings on the corks. But Kapon also asks clients to pull certain bottles for them to taste together, often at marathon dinners where a dozen or more old bottles are consumed.
"One of the ways we've been able to weed out questionable bottles is to taste and taste again with some of our biggest clients," said Kapon. "We've religiously tasted the megawines that we've offered." Of the 22 Ponsot lots in the April 25 sale, the catalog entries of six included detailed tasting notes by Kapon while two quoted notes from the newsletter of critic Allen Meadows—aka "Burghound."
According to Brian Orcutt, a New York-based wine consultant to wealthy collectors, Kapon's reliance on tasting is valid. "You can have discrepancies in labeling that don't make the wine fraudulent, so tasting the wine is the last step you can take. John has used that tactic. He'll tell you, 'I can look at the wine all day long, but what matters is the taste of the wine.' What he's done is more extreme than at other auction houses, because his test of authenticity is to destroy the wine."
Just what wine is in the Ponsot bottles, which Kapon now says are "tremendous fakes at the highest level"? Clever counterfeiters make sure that the wine in the bottle does not taste incorrect. Ponsot himself said, "I believe that whoever did this actually found old bottles of wine from Morey St-Denis, maybe even from Clos de la Roche or Clos St-Denis. But it wasn't ours."
Kapon says that the "Faux Ponsot" affair has sobered him. "The auction market is one of intense labor," he said. "Next fall, we might have to slow down and tighten up to ensure that some of these old treasures are what they're supposed to be. We'll think long and hard about it over the summer." At Christie's, any lot of wine valued at $20,000 or more must now be subjected to multiple inspections by experts. All such steps are part of an effort to instill confidence in the now-global community of collectors that fake wine will not reach the selling floor. As Geoffroy Troy, a New York wine merchant, said, "We're like a small village all drinking from the same well. If it's poisoned, we'll all suffer."
Most threatened by the false wines, however, may be conscientious growers like Ponsot. "There's a geological universe under our soil that makes the character of our wines," he said. "I will not see it abused."