Could that prized bottle of first-growth Bordeaux that you picked up at auction be a reproduction? Counterfeit wine has become increasingly common over the past 15 years, with more indictments being handed down, says Connecticut wine appraiser William Edgerton, who specializes in the identification of counterfeit bottles for collectors and auction houses.
Los Angeles wine collector and dealer Rudy Kurniawan was sentenced last year to 10 years in prison for what many believe to be the largest wine fraud in history, involving the sale of more than $20 million in counterfeit vintages.
Here are a few of Edgerton’s tips to protect yourself when building your wine collection:
- Steer clear of vintages before 1961 if you can. These wines – typically the most valuable to collectors – are also the most frequently counterfeited, particularly bottles of high-quality, first- growth Bordeaux from the 1940s.
“As much as 75 percent of the wines identified as counterfeits are dated before 1961,” Edgerton says. The most frequently copied wine, he says, is the 1945 Chateau Mouton Rothschild – considered one of the best red wines ever made. It’s harder to identify as fake because it was bottled at several different times, each with slightly different labels. Other targets are some of the big Super Tuscans, such as the 1985 Sassicaia, which received a perfect score of 100 points by several wine critics. But really, Edgerton says, “Any wine over $1,000 is fair game.”
- Look for clues on the bottle. The bottle itself can alert you to phony vintages. The most common tip-off is an ever-so-slightly crooked label, or one showing bits of glue around the edges (errors made by hand gluing on a replacement label). Is the label made of the right color and stock of paper? Does that vintage have a watermark or embossing?
Other telltale signs of ersatz vino:
- Damage to the capsule – Unexplained cuts or repairs to the thin wrapping over the cork are one clue that an empty bottle might have been refilled.
- The wrong bottle shape – The construction and shape of the bottle itself should match the period and the region. Was that vintage typically put in a bottle made with a two-part mold, three-part mold, or more rare, a hand-blown vessel?
- Sediment (or lack thereof) – If you’re buying vintages more than 20 years old, it would be suspicious if you didn’t find sediment at the bottom of the bottle, Edgerton says.
- The wrong cork – This is harder to examine, but extremely important to valuation, as the cork carries the brand of the vintner and the date of the vintage.
Of course, sometimes spotting a fake is more straightforward. The downfall of wine con artist Kurniawan was that he produced vintages that didn’t exist.
“His problem is he got greedy and wound up counterfeiting wines that never got made,” Edgerton said. To be sure, there is a lot of money to be made from reproducing the world’s finest wines. He recalls one example of a swindler buying a $600 case of a lesser Montrachet vintage, soaking off the labels and replacing them with reproduced labels of a much more esteemed vintage that he then sold for $12,000.
- Have your big purchases inspected. If you are a good customer or are making a big purchase, many auction houses will allow you to have a wine appraiser examine a bottle before you bid. After a number of lawsuits were filed against auction houses over counterfeit wine, many now offer a 90-day money-back guarantee, so you can make sure the bottle is as described, and just as important, not out of condition.
The bottom line is it’s better to head off a fake before you own it. Many collectors are afraid of having their cellar appraised, Edgerton says, for fear of discovering fraud and eliminating their chance of resale. “Then they would have to identify it as counterfeit and nobody would want to buy it,” he says.
The good news, he adds, is that the greater awareness of wine counterfeiting is helping to slow the number of rip-offs hitting the market. Still, he cautions, buyers should tread carefully.
“There are hundreds of thousands of bottles of counterfeit wine out there.”