Three years ago, Peter Sisseck of Dominio de Pingus became suspicious. A cork supplier his Ribera del Duero winery didn't normally use contacted his office. A restaurant in Galicia had placed a request for Pingus-branded corks.
"We sort of let it go," Sisseck told Wine Spectator.
But two years later, a Danish buyer complained about two seemingly fake bottles of Pingus he had purchased at auction in Belgium. When Sisseck looked into it, he found out the wine had been supplied by someone from a restaurant in Galicia. "It struck me that when we investigated the incident with the corks, it also came from a restaurant in Galicia," said Sisseck.
His suspicions sparked an investigation by Spain's Civil Guard. And last month, officers announced that they had broken up a counterfeiting ring that had been operating for four years, allegedly producing fake bottles of collectible Spanish wines, like Pingus and Bodegas Vega Sicilia. Since the probe began June 18, officers have arrested four people in connection with the allegations and are investigating four more. The suspects face charges ranging from money laundering to crimes against industrial property and public health.
When the Civil Guard first picked up the case, their sleuthing took them to a restaurant in the Galician town of A Coruña named Don Álex Multibart, where they found counterfeiting operations. Additional operations were found in Madrid and Marbella. The authorities uncovered approximately 1,800 fake Pingus and Vega Sicilia labels, computer equipment used to falsify labels, and a punching machine to print on corks. The restaurant's owner was among four of the suspects arrested.
"The route of the fake wine bottles has been traced, from falsification to distribution," Civil Guard Lieutenant Abel Marín told Wine Spectator. According to Marín, the scheme involved purchasing wine for around $20, or lesser cuvées of the targeted wineries for around $100, and relabeling them as high-end bottlings fetching between $1,600 and $2,200. Bottlings of Vega Sicilia's Valbuena series, for example, were relabeled as Unico, which is the winery's top cuvée.
The wines were sold at auctions, to private clients, and to hotels and restaurants. Marín believes the scheme brought the offenders an estimated $1.7 million in profits. "Companies have been asked to increase the security measures of their wine bottles to make counterfeiting difficult," said Marín.
Sisseck said he's pretty sure there are no more counterfeits of Pingus left on the market, and has since taken measures to more easily distinguish his bottles from fake ones.
"It is important to go through the official channels," he added. "You don’t buy a Rolex watch from somebody in Times Square, and the same goes with wine."
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