Quality auction houses take every precaution to stop wine fraud, but sometimes, their efforts aren’t enough. Last year, a popular auction house was accused of trying to sell counterfeit wine to customers, and was stopped when a sharp-eyed expert caught the attempted fraud. Years ago, the auction house had successfully sold an authentic bottle of 1949 Domaine de la Romanee Conti La Tache, so when a collector brought that same bottle of wine to the auction house for resale, the auction house didn’t expect the bottle to be counterfeit. The first time the bottle sold at auction, the pour line was relatively low (which is common for old wines), but when the bottle went through the auction house again years later, the pour line was much higher. Experts suspected that one of the bottle’s previous owners had added wine to the bottle.
Thankfully for the auction house and collectors, the fake bottles were caught before they had the chance to sell, meaning that collectors avoided an expensive mistake. But avoiding counterfeit wine in your own collection is tricky, and requires careful attention to detail.
Choose the Right Retailer
Infamous wine fraud Rudy Kurniawan was able to sell counterfeit wine to seasoned collectors like Bill Koch because Kurniawan was skilled at the art of deception. He would host elaborate in-person auctions, mixing authentic bottles with fake bottles so that his guests would have trouble spotting the fakes. He saved high-end counterfeit bottles for last during tastings, when his buyers’ palates were tired and dulled, making it almost impossible for the buyers to detect strange tastes in the wine. In hindsight, Koch and other collectors were able to see the tricks Kurniawan used to sell fake bottles, but at the time, they trusted him. This is why you need to know how to spot legitimate retailers, and avoid the dangerous ones.
First, consider the reputation of the retailer. Have other collectors purchased bottles from them, and if so, how satisfied were they with the authenticity? Next, ask whether the retailer has a return policy or purchase guarantee. If you buy a fake bottle from a retailer, you want the option to take the bottle back for a full refund. Finally, ask whether the retailer inspects bottles for fraud using wine experts. Never buy wine from a retailer who answers “I don’t know” or “No” to these three questions.
Even if you choose the best retailer, there’s no guarantee that they can catch every instance of wine fraud. That’s because counterfeit wine sellers are constantly changing the way they commit wine fraud, forcing the industry to use new fraud detection techniques every year. In the event your retailer makes a mistake, you need to know how to catch fake wines yourself. The first thing you should inspect is the wine label, as it’s relatively easy to spot fake labels.
Look at how the label is placed on the bottle. Is it crooked? Authentic bottles of high-end wine will never have crooked labels. Do you see any glue residue on the bottle? It could be a sign that the seller recently placed a new label on the bottle. Is the label damaged? This isn’t always a sign of fraud, since older wines have some stains on the label, but if the label is ripped or severely damaged, avoid buying the wine. If possible, you should also look at every detail of an authentic label and compare it to your bottle’s label, preferably with a magnifying glass. If even one minor detail is off, you can’t trust the wine’s authenticity.
Look for Signs of Proper Aging
Wine seller Geoffrey Troy says that frauds often pour cheaper wine into empty bottles of expensive wine. Speaking of Kurniawan, Troy explains, “He could take a $200 bottle and turn it into over a $1,000 bottle.” You can’t spot this kind of fraud from the wine label, because the label is authentic; it’s the wine inside that isn’t. How do you catch this type of counterfeit wine? You either have to taste it, or look at pour lines.
In old wines, pour lines get lower the longer the wine is in the cellar. Burgundy that’s more than 15 years old can have a pour line that is as low as two inches below the cork, and Bordeaux can have a pour line as low as the upper shoulder of the bottle. When you buy a 15-year-old Burgundy that has a pour line right up against the cork, this could mean that the previous owner filled the bottle with new, cheap wine. The only other way to catch this type of fraud is to taste the wine and observe it in the glass. To make sure that what you’re drinking is the real deal, look at the color of the liquid. The guide below gives you a sense of what wines of every age should look like.
- Dry White (Less Than 15 Years Old): Clear, lemon, or light gold (not dark gold or amber)
- Dry White (More Than 15 Years Old): Golden shades (not brown)
- Sweet White (Less Than 15 Years Old): Golden shades
- Sweet White (More Than 15 Years Old): Amber or mahogany (not black)
- Red (Less Than 15 Years Old): Varies from pale red to deep purple (no shades of brown)
- Red (More Than 15 Years Old): Varies in color, some brown expected (not more brown than red)
Be Wary of Common Counterfeit Wine Vintages
You’ll want to do plenty of research on vintages if you want to avoid buying counterfeit wine. In the past, wine frauds have relabeled cheaper, lower quality vintages as higher quality, iconic vintages worth hundreds or even thousands of dollars more. For instance, a bottle of 1962 Lafite might be sold as a 1959 Lafite, which is far more valuable. To avoid this, you need to research how many cases of a particular vintage were produced by the winery, and find out how many cases are likely to still be in existence.
Some of the most commonly-faked bottles include: 1947 Cheval Blanc (more bottles have been sold than were produced), 1811 Chateau d’Yquem (the wine was “rediscovered” only as recently as the 1970s), 1924 Mouton Rothschild (as the first estate-bottled vintage, it’s popular among collectors), 1921 Petrus (magnums of this high-quality vintage are rare and highly collectible), and 1952 DRC La Tache (it’s the most famous winery in Burgundy and one of the best vintages in its history).
To avoid buying counterfeits of popular vintages, ask for authentication paperwork whenever possible, and have up to date information on how the wine has been stored throughout its lifetime. On the other hand, if you bought the bottles ex-chateau or you have proof that they have been in a bonded warehouse for the last 20 years, chances are good that they’re legitimate vintages.
By: Harley Hoffmann
Harley is an Executive Wine Specialist for Vinfolio, helping collectors find the best wines for their collection. He’s a lover of everything outdoors and the proper bottles to go along with it. You can find him at any of the newest cocktail bars and restaurants in SF or on an adventure somewhere in between Lake Tahoe and the California coastline.