October 2008

Too Good to Be Cru?

Labels that lie can cost wine lovers big time


Wine labels Nola Lopez

When clay wine vessels showed up in the ancient Roman market bearing the status imprimatur POMPEII and held nothing of the sort, you can bet someone was fed to the lions for wine fraud. Two thousand years later, wine fraud is still around, only these days the impostors include Château Pétrus and the Merlot-based Pomerol Bordeaux.

In the late spring, I was at a preauction gathering of wine writers sponsored by Christie’s. Vice president and wine specialist Scott Torrence poured and asked, “What do you think?” I eagerly placed my nose into the glass. Hmmm, I thought, this is interesting. I was perplexed. Seemed old, but it had no sense of place, no there, no structure. It tasted like rusty water. “Total spoof,” I wrote.

Turns out the mystery wine was the 1982 Château Pétrus—a phony 1982 Pétrus. I was actually tasting an authentic phony! Very exciting. An authentic bottle of 1982 Pétrus could sell at auction for $5,000. While sampling the imposter was a kick for me—kind of like examining a fake Picasso—the poor North American collector who invested in it must have had gastric distress. He expected a $150K payday, but after autopsying a few bottles, Christie’s sent them back to be used in meatloaf.

Bordeaux from important vintages are the most attractive targets for knockoffs, but anything that promises solid returns in today’s fiercely competitive wine-auction market is fair game. In other words, if you’re looking for a status-symbol older Burgundy like Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, top vintage Sassacaias or cult Cabernets, you might want to sit on your auction paddle until you’re certain.

And these days, it is very hard to be certain. Justin Christoph, a consultant who worked with Christie’s to track this particular lot of 1982s, offered that counterfeiters might buy damaged authentic wines at auction for a song and then fill the bottles with inferior wine, recork and refoil them.

In spite of his due diligence, Angeleno Rudy Kurniawan, one of the world’s most noted Burgundy collectors, got snookered. Kurniawan took 85 bottles of a rare Domaine Ponsot Burgundy to New York’s Acker Merrall & Condit for auction, where they were expected to sell for an estimated $603,000. The bottles were dramatically yanked at the last minute because, as winemaker Laurent Ponsot told Wine Spectator, “My father, Jean-Marie, didn’t begin to produce our Clos St. Denis until 1982. So how could the bottles say 1945, 1949, 1959, 1962, 1966 and 1971?”

Burghound critic Allen Meadows tasted the wines and remembered they were gorgeous: “Most likely from important terroir, maybe even Clos St. Denis. Sometimes the fraudeurs aren’t very smart. The guy who did the Ponsot deal was an idiot.”

Kurniawan got duped. How? As the saying goes, lust makes you stupid. Was that it? Kurniawan tried to explain: “I tasted the wines with many experienced and respected collectors, as well as winemakers and the man who is in my opinion the best Burgundy critic and taster, Meadows. All of us thought the wines were exceptional and that they were what they claimed to be. I apologize for my ignorance, but I consider myself a collector and a drinker, not a wine historian. I had asked a couple of people who know a lot more than I do about Burgundy. The discrepancy even escaped those people.”

How did this obvious error slip past the likes of Acker Merrall & Condit’s president and auction director John Kapon and Meadows? “It happens,” Kapon said. “Maybe part of the reason is because no one was looking for it.”

For new bottles, some are looking for it. Some makers of high-end wines are safeguarding their vintages with bottle numbering and hologram technology from Kodak. In late 2008, Leo Fenn, who consults in wine buying and selling, will launch a registry system, wineverify.com.

But on the antique- and older-wine market, lawsuits might be the way to go. The Billionaire’s Vinegar, by Benjamin Wallace, tells the story of William Koch’s campaign against collector/merchant Hardy Rodenstock for selling him phony bottles. The man in charge of Koch’s legal attack, ex- FBI agent Jim Elroy, said, “We’re talking hundreds of millions of dollars. A law is needed to put the monkey on the auction house’s back. So far, it’s been buyer beware. But right now, it looks like conspiratorial disregard for the truth when you see these wines being auctioned off.”

In any other collectible—say, counterfeit art—the work would be impounded instead of returned to the seller. With today’s system, the wine frauder can easily go out looking for the next chump. “Take magnums of 1921 Pétrus,” Elroy said. “We believe that wine was never made.” Just for fun, I trawled wine-commune.com, the giant wine flea market. A magnum of Pétrus 1921? It costs $34,374.89. I can hear the lion’s roar.

So, where’s the truth? Do these old bottles exist or not? Is the 1921 plonk a fake like my 1982 Pétrus, or is it a glorious though fake tipple like the Ponsot?

One thing is for sure, though: If you are presently finding more joy in something like Loire Valley Gamay or California Carignan than status bottles with high price tags, your bottle is most assuredly authentic.