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Right Bottle, Wrong Wine

Counterfeit bottles are multiplying as the global demand for collectible wines surges

Mitch Frank
Posted: December 20, 2006

There's a joke in the restaurant world that Las Vegas dining rooms serve more Château Pétrus 1982 in a year than the Pomerol estate ever made. Sadly, that may not be a gross exaggeration.

Rajat Parr, wine director for Michael Mina's restaurants in San Francisco and Las Vegas, remembers when his staff at one of the four Vegas venues told him of a customer who ordered three bottles of '82 Pétrus the previous night. "He drank the first bottle," said Parr. "And sent the second bottle back--it didn't taste right to him--but he loved the third bottle." Inspecting the corks and empty bottles, Parr was embarrassed to realize that the first and third bottles were fakes; the second was the real thing.

There is a growing fear in the wine industry that counterfeit bottles are on the rise. While it's impossible to know how widespread the problem is, some insiders fear as much as 5 percent of wines sold in secondary markets--the prized bottles collectors cellar for a decade or more--may be fakes.

Globalization, trade and technology have all made counterfeiting easy, and not just in wine. The World Customs Bureau estimates that $600 billion of counterfeit goods--clothes, luggage, consumer electronics, cigarettes and yes, wine--are sold every year. Computers can effortlessly reproduce ornate wine labels, and counterfeiters have learned how to fake out consumers' palates.

In 2002, Hong Kong customs officials uncovered 30 bottles of fake Château Lafite Rothschild 1982, today worth about $800 per bottle at auction. The counterfeiters had simply bought bottles of Lafite 1991, a much weaker vintage, then worth only $100 a bottle, and relabeled them. Last year, an Italian court convicted four men of selling fake Sassicaia 1995 in Tuscany from the back of a Peugeot hatchback; a raid on a warehouse found 20,000 bottles of the fake super Tuscan.

Vigilance is growing, but not as quickly as the demand for small-production, ageworthy wines. The auction market is booming, with sales growing 375 percent between 1994 and 2005, as eager new collectors have driven up prices. That's proved tempting to counterfeiters, and scared some wine buyers away. "We get 50 offers of rare wines for sale every day," said Richard Betts, wine director for Montagna at the Little Nell in Aspen, a Wine Spectator Grand Award winner. "They can't all be legit." Betts only buys from one auction house, preferring to buy direct from private collectors he knows.

Auction houses are quick to defend themselves, however. Acker, Merrall & Condit president John Kapon insists that all consigned wines are carefully inspected and that he'll often cut the capsule to inspect the cork before he'll accept a wine. "Most important, though, is knowing who you're dealing with," said Kapon. "We try to work only with large collectors we know and trust, whose wines we've tasted in the past."

Kapon and Parr both believe the wineries need to be doing more to safeguard their products. "If you're going to charge $750 a bottle, you have a responsibility to the consumer," said Kapon.

Some producers have taken action, such as developing innovative new ways to mark bottles with serial numbers or by engraving the glass. One Italian company created what it calls a talking wine label, while Italian producer Arnaldo Caprai introduced the smart cork to some of its bottlings. However, "It is a problem for old vintages because no precautions were taken," explained Jean-Luc Thunevin, owner of Château Valandraud. Many Burgundy and Rhône producers didn't brand corks until the 1980s, and some top Bordeaux châteaus kept limited records of volumes and bottlings before the 1950s of the wines they produced.

Trying to prevent future counterfeits, some producers are taking an active interest in how their wine is distributed. Champagne Louis Roederer created its own U.S. distribution firm to exercise greater control over where their top cuvée Cristal goes.

But until more producers take additional steps, the onus is squarely on the buyer. Parr, for one, keeps a collection of empty bottles and old corks so he can study what the classics should look like. "You want people to be careful, but not to panic," said Betts.

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