Tuesday, August 30, 2011

FAKE WINE UNCORKED - A Detective Story

Merriam-Webster defines counterfeit as: "made in imitation of something else with intent to deceive."  Counterfeiting money is the most obvious forgery; you make fake money and you spend it. But people counterfeit identification papers, art, jewelry, drugs, you name it. Anything to make a dishonest buck.

In terms of collectibles, it seems no commodity is safe from forgery. While there have almost certainly been numerous historical instances of wine being doctored to appear more valuable, it seems that with the dawn of the new century, discoveries of counterfeit wines have mushroomed.

Some of these cases are preying on mass-market consumers; in England, a huge amount of the relatively inexpensive Jacob's Creek wines was recently found to be fake and filled with some plonk wine after the discovery that "Australia" was misspelled on the back label.  (No one had spell-check at the forgery lab? Idiots!) For the full story: http://bbc.in/ifaWy6.

And another article appeared even as I sat to compose this entry: 10,000 bottles of fake inexpensive wine seized in Taiwan: http://bit.ly/nptRll - and these bottles were merely full of grape juice and chemicals.

But what concerns me on a more psychological level is the seemingly rampant forging of fine and rare wines.  The Minx almost takes it personally; how dare a forger tamper with something that is meant to be consumed on special occasions, relished, exalted over, shared with nearest and dearest, every drop savored?

Many in the wine industry believe that a German national going by the name of Hardy Rodenstock is the mastermind behind an enormous amount of counterfeit wine being discovered.  If this is true, I can posit a theory that what drove him and presumably others like him was the desire to "get the ungettable get" - in tight wine circles, to be the one providing the most rare, most extraordinary wine of the tasting.

So... can't actually find it?  Fake it.

Now, this man has not been tried in a court of law (although lawsuits are flitting about) and he has not yet been proven to be the orchestrator of a massive counterfeit wine scheme.  Nor do I personally think it possible that one man alone could be responsible for amassing age-appropriate bottles, printing up labels, doctoring corks, putting them all together, filling them with wine and distributing them.  But this assemblage and distribution has occurred beyond any doubt.

NOT a 1945 Mouton, alas.
And this is where I join the story.

In June, I was involved in a tasting of twelve magnums of prestigious Bordeaux wine.  If real, they would have been valued at around $250,000.  However, my father, the wine appraiser and consultant William H. Edgerton, had made strong conclusions derived from physical appearance and determined each bottle was a forgery.  He had then arranged to take possession of the bottles to try and gather more information.  You see, unlike art or gold bars or other valuable collectibles, just about the only way to truly determine if wine is fake is to destroy it - by opening and tasting it.

So to do that, seven industry insiders including the influential wine critic Robert M. Parker, Jr. gathered at a restaurant in Baltimore.  Wineaux, the combined knowledge and experience of these palates was just incredible; a veritable library of wine catalogs perched around a table.

We sat down to begin the tasting with a palpable feeling of anticipation in the room.  If some or all of these wines were real, it would be a tasting of a lifetime.  The first wine, a 1921 Clos L'Eglise-Clinet, was definitely exhibiting signs of being from the proper era: an age-appropriate color and nose.  But immediately Mr. Parker shook his head.  Others concurred - while old, it was from a far inferior vintage than the 1921.  However, one thing was for sure - whoever forged this wine didn't fill it with Trader Joe's "Two-Buck Chuck." Someone took care enough to ensure that most who opened the bottle would experience an aged Bordeaux, just maybe not showing as well as was expected.  The detectives in us scrutinized the wine's cork and capsule in wonderment... nothing was overtly alarming at first glance, although upon tasting, the wine was obviously not what it was labelled to be. Fake.

Wine number two, a 1947 Clos L'Eglise-Clinet raised a few eyebrows with what seemed like printed-on spidering on the label and a suspicious-looking cork.  This, and the others of the same vintage, a 1947 Château Cheval Blanc and 1947 Château Lafleur, were all properly colored for their age, but not a one had any personality.  They were all light and thin, not the blockbuster wines they should still be.  Fake, fake and fake.

Next up, the 1950 Château Lafleur - it was arguably the "best" wine tasted so far, but still was flat and lifeless, and certainly not sixty-one years old; more likely fifteen to twenty-five.  Fake.

The saddest experience yet was the following 1961 Château Latour: "acid water." Ugh.  Fake.  Way-too overly acidic wines continued with the 1948 Château Latour à Pomerol and the 1961 Château Latour à Pomerol. Fake and fake.

Notice the conveniently missing last digit...
Next, a 1945 Château La Mission-Haut-Brion. Here is a photo of the cork - just look at that perfect smudge where the final digit of the vintage should be.  I mean, REALLY.  Due to the flavors and style of this wine, it was agreed upon as probably indeed a Ch. La Mission-Haut-Brion, just from an inferior vintage, maybe 1946.  This cork (as well as some others and their capsules) were pulled aside for testing in a lab; perhaps technology could be utilized to see what number was originally printed there. Fake.

And now the room held its collective breath for the hopeful star of the tasting, the 1945 Château Mouton-Rothschild. (See label above.)  It had good color and a nice nose, with flavors of licorice, red fruit, big florals, asian spice, and cedar and tobacco notes with a long finish.  Wineaux, it was just lovely.  But was it real?  Sadly, no.  While definitely from a similar era, this was judged to be far too light in style to be a powerhouse 1945.  Quite possibly a Ch. Mouton, but again, from an inferior vintage.  Fake.  (As the tasters oohed and aahed over the bouquet and flavors, Mr. Parker was especially intrigued, and one gentleman leaned in and said, "Now, don't rate the fake wine too high, Bob!")

Our last two wines were from the same estate: a 1950 Château Pétrus and a 1961 Château Pétrus.  While once again exhibiting signs of appropriateness, these wines were both judged to be... you guessed it, fake.  The über-knowledgeable palates agreed they were probably from the correct region of Pomerol, but either from inferior producers and/or vintages.

Our tasting was concluded, but there were very few absolute conclusions.  While the insight was interesting as to what was being put out into the market as a high-end forged wine, it was impossible to determine the forger's identity/identities or precise methods.  We are still waiting to hear if any further information is gained from the bottles, labels, corks and capsules sent for testing.  Sadly, this Detective Story has no exciting finale, Wineaux.  It is just another chapter of the epic maelstrom that is counterfeit wine.  Perhaps one day there will be justice and wine collectors will be able to begin to relax in the knowledge that their holdings are true.  That may even be happening now; no one at the tasting believed that forgers on this wide scale were still in operation, especially as the level of scrutiny has skyrocketed.  But auction houses and collectors are noticeably jumpy, with good reason.

Interestingly, many of us brought the glass of the counterfeit 1945 Ch. Mouton to our lunch table.  Here is where the psychology goes haywire - if I had no suspicion of this wine being falsified, I would most likely have gushed on and on about its beauty and magnificence.  Not having had the opportunity to taste this wine before, I had no experience to compare it to.  Ultimately, the influence of the mind over the palate is almost impossible to ignore.

In any case, what I am left with is this: one of the most amazing wines I have ever tasted in my life was... a FAKE 1945 Ch. Mouton.  Sigh.


  1. dear, how does the fake 45 Mouton cork look like?

  2. Hi Francesco,
    To the best of my recollection, the '45 Mouton cork was very saturated and it was difficult to discern any markings at all, let alone suspicious ones. However, it appeared of an appropriate age, fitting with our suspicion that it was from a nearby vintage.

    Thanks for reading!