The doors slid open, and Nick Bartman and his undercover team of operatives walked into the stylish reception area of a prosperous winery and import firm in Penglai, China. Bartman took in the palatial staircase, the museum pieces of old winemaking equipment and photos of French vineyards. It was a class act. Climbing the stairs, he was ushered into the winery owner’s vast office and crossed paths with a woman who had just ordered imported French wines to distribute through major supermarkets in northern China.
A long sideboard showcased a range of Bordeaux wines sold by the winery. They were well-known brands. Not long into the meeting, the owner couldn’t resist gloating. “He decided to tell us the truth, thinking we were as big criminals as him,” recounted Bartman in an interview with Wine Spectator.
The winery owner had trademarked the French wines' names in China and copied barcodes from authentic bottles of those wines. If scanned, the codes linked back to the French wineries. The man then showed Bartman the paperwork to "prove" the wine originated in France, when in fact it was made in the building next door from a mishmash of varieties, grown locally.
“The whole package was one big plausible scam with each and every element thought through and planned over some considerable time,” said Bartman, who was visiting the winery undercover for clients back in France.
Gaining the trust of criminals is all in a day’s work for Bartman. The intellectual property lawyer has worked undercover in China for 25 years, tracking down sources of counterfeit goods and the people making them. “There’s no dollar count of the damage I've done, but conservatively $300 million,” estimated Bartman.
In recent years Bartman has turned his attention to wine, as counterfeiters in China and other countries found the beverage an attractive and lucrative target. Clients have hired him to find out where the fakes have come from, and his work has led to legal action and criminal investigations.
Now Bartman has a suggestion that could mean less wine business for him but would help winery owners hoping to protect their products. While companies have devised numerous anti-counterfeiting labels and tags in recent years, Bartman argues they don't work long-term. “Holograms and QR codes are too easy to copy," he said. "The Chinese counterfeit every reasonably priced anti-counterfeiting product there is.” Instead, he argues that the most effective identifier of authenticity is already on the bottom of every bottle.
Look at the base of a bottle, or flip it over and look at the punt, and you'll see small insignias, numbers and an odd sequence of dots, moulded into the glass during manufacturing. In case there is a problem with a bottle, manufacturers need to be able to figure out which factory and batch it came from so they can determine if a recall is needed. These numbers and symbols reveal the manufacturer, factory, region and country, the mold used, the volume of liquid in the bottle, and the distance between the top of the bottle neck and the top of the wine.
But most important of all, says Bartman, is the dot code, which looks like Braille. “There are an approximate of 13 dots that could be on a bottle to provide a code; the combinations of amount of dots, their position, and spacing vary,” explained Bartman.
The dot code provides the factory's final inspection equipment with bottle identification information, which is stored in a computer for traceability. If there were a system to record which wines are placed in which bottles, the combination of insignia, numbers and dots, always changing, coupled with the complexity of copying the quality and color of glass, would tie the wine bottle, wine and brand together in such a way as to be a “moving target” for fraudsters.
“It makes the job of the counterfeiter almost impossible,” said Bartman. The idea is to make it so difficult that they move on to the next target. “Counterfeit control is a mental game with the bad guys.”
For Bartman's idea to work, bottle manufacturers must share with their clients details of the dot codes and other insignia on the batches delivered. On the bottling line at the wine company, the bottler would record the information linking a specific batch of bottles to the wine and labels used. The information could be stored in a database in a way that is searchable even years later.
He also suggests adding a label that reads “Anti-Counterfeit Bottle Dot Code Traceability.” This not only acts as a deterrent to criminals, but gives the entire distribution chain a way to check on authenticity. “If anyone wants to check on a bottle, all they have to do is photograph the insignia and dot-codes and e-mail to the bottler. If it is not original, then the alarm bells ring.”
In researching his idea, Bartman spoke with one of the largest bottle companies to see if manufacturers could provide the information a winery or bottler would need. Wine Spectator contacted a representative of Saint Gobain, a French multinational and leading bottle manufacturer, who confirmed that the dot codes have been used for internal controls for a long time, noting there might be as many as 250,000 bottles in one series, all traceable to the same production batch through the unique coding.
Why would such an idea work when other anti-counterfeiting techniques can be faked? At the core of Bartman's idea is the complexity and cost of counterfeiting a bottle. “The bad guys have got to persuade a glass bottle manufacturer to copy a range of bottles. It makes the job that much more difficult, or close to impossible.”
The cost of replicating molds would be prohibitive, and replicating just one mold would flood the market with too many similar bottles, raising alarms. A further deterrent is the fact that the glass market is dominated by giant companies, and even in China they are mainly big firms with much to lose. “For a wine counterfeiter to execute the perfect crime, he must first find a glass bottle manufacturer prepared to counterfeit a competitor’s bottle.”
He admits there will be added costs for wineries, but considering the widespread counterfeiting he has seen, it's worth the price. “This is unavoidable, but must be swallowed," said Bartman. "The benefit will come in increased sales and reputation, as customers take comfort they are buying original wine, and not being duped with counterfeits.”