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What’s Next? Château Bétrus?

Obvious fakes puzzle wine pros in China
Photo by: David Yellen

Posted: May 25, 2010 1:05pm ET

The label sports the familiar typeface, the look and feel, of an iconic Australian wine brand. The white background, the crest at the top, the diagonal script with the winery name and the paragraph of fine italic type evoke the famous wines of Penfolds, one of Australia’s oldest wine labels.

But look a little closer. The name in red says “Benfolds,” and the fine print is full of misspellings. The label for Bin 389, supposedly the 2003 vintage, reads, “matured in A merican oak casks including all thusethat hold the previous vinrage of Benfolds Grange.” It has “talanced oak” and makes an “excellent accompeniment” to “red mears.” Yet another example of the growing problem of counterfeit collectible wines.

Sharp-eyed knowledgeable folks might also notice that it’s a knockoff of an older style of Penfolds label, not the one that was actually used on the 2003 vintage. (The photos below came to me as e-mail attachments from an industry friend and I have been unable to locate the source.)

Lest one think this a gag, the wines were spotted recently at a spiffy looking stand at a major alcoholic beverage industry fair in China. Accounts say the kiosk even featured a photograph of Peter Gago, the real Penfolds winemaker.

I e-mailed Peter for his reaction. “We sincerely hope it is a joke,” Gago wrote. “If not, then it certainly isn’t funny. We are following up.”

In an online column for Australia-China Connections, the Bilateral Business Bulletin, Melbourne-based wine writer Jeremy Oliver noted that “Benfolds” is the way most Chinese speakers pronounce “Penfolds.” He added that Château Lafite Rothschild came in for similar treatment, “even to the extent to which a potential buyer had to examine the corks and capsules quite closely to pick they were actually fake.”

Oliver puts the best face on this outrageous behavior. He suggests that, imitation being the sincerest form of flattery, it shows how the opportunity to sell wine has arrived in China’s urban markets. And, he argues, if Penfolds were not already so strong in China, no one would be ripping it off.

Penfolds, I am told, means "run to fortune," and the red color of its logo signifies good luck. Marketing gold, that.

That said, Penfolds is indeed getting ripped off, and so are Chinese wine drinkers.

A significant portion of the Australian vintners I talk to have gingerly taken some steps to sell wine in China, the largest potential wine market on their side of the International Date Line.

"I am about to bottle up some Lucky Country under a Lucky 8 label specifically for the Chinese market,” says Michael Twelftree, owner of Two Hands Wines. But he is wary of what could happen. “We found some guy had registered our logo a few years back,” he notes, “but we were able to stop the registration."

Twelftree was on his way to Macao, where he plans to have lunch at Joël Robuchon's lux restaurant there. “I cant wait to have a look in the cellar and see how many fakies I can find,” he jokes.

Josh Woodward
Findlay, OH —  May 25, 2010 4:35pm ET
Someone at least has a good sense of humor. Ben Folds is a rock star:

Harvey Steiman
San Francisco, CA —  May 25, 2010 4:43pm ET
Ah yes. His presence on the web made it very difficult to sort out the wine references in my many Google searches.
Greg Malcolm
St. Louis, Missouri —  May 25, 2010 10:11pm ET
"And, he [Oliver] argues, if Penfolds were not already so strong in China, no one would be ripping it off."

Unfortunately, the reality in China is that even unknown wines are being spoofed.

One of my office colleagues was recently having dinner at a restaurant near Yantai and decided to order a bottle of local wine, in order to see what it was like. Upon examining the label, our Yantai office manager, informed him that the vineyard listed on the label did not even exist in the year listed as the vintage!
Roman Oesterle
switzerland —  May 26, 2010 1:22am ET
Here is another,Benfolds.
Karl Mark
Geneva, IL. —  May 27, 2010 1:33pm ET
There's a lot of money to be made in conterfeiting those wines, just like other products. So what is the Chinese gov't doing to stop it??
Harvey Steiman
San Francisco, CA —  May 27, 2010 1:39pm ET
Not enough, Karl, or an outfit like "Benfolds" could not baldly present its wares in a state-sponsored trade show.

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