A FEW WEEKS AGO the French police discovered a cache of fake Côtes du Rhône wine so large it would have equaled 15% of the output of the entire appellation over almost two and a half years—had it been real. It was bulk stuff of no particular distinction, and the CEO of the company was charged with fraud. This was just the latest in a long series of such discoveries in recent years, and further proof that counterfeiters target cheap wines just as readily as grand crus. As Maureen Downey, a San Francisco-based expert on wine fraud, observed, “Fake wine hits the entire gamut of wine.” Eager to know what a wine drinker can do to protect herself and avoid possibly lining the pockets of counterfeiters, I attended a wine fraud and authentication seminar last month run by Ms. Downey at the Four Seasons Hotel San Francisco. Attended by wine professionals and passionate amateurs, the two-day session cost $5,000 per person. It was the first such seminar Ms. Downey, proprietor of Chai Consulting, a wine collection management company, has held in the U.S. (She has held several such seminars in Hong Kong and London.) Some participants brought along bottles of their own for authentication. Susan Lin, a Master of Wine candidate and business development manager of the Belmont Wine Exchange in Hayward, Calif., presented bottles from great producers: Chave Hermitage and Domaine Ponsot Chapelle-Chambertin. She thought the wines were real, but she wanted to be certain. The name Domaine Ponsot will ring a bell with those who follow wine-fraud news. In a story made famous by the documentary “Sour Grapes” and the book “In Vino Duplicitas,” the domaine’s proprietor, Laurent Ponsot, attended a 2008 wine auction in New York where fake bottles of Ponsot wines were offered for sale. The consignor was Rudy Kurniawan, a high-profile collector from California. An investigation into Mr. Kurniawan’s dealings culminated in a search of his Arcadia, Calif., home, which turned out to be filled with tools of wine fakery: counterfeit labels, blank corks and empty bottles to be filled. Mr. Kurniawan went on trial in New York for counterfeiting and was convicted in 2014. He was ordered to pay $28.4 million in restitution to seven of his victims and to forfeit $20 million in property, and is serving a 10-year sentence in a federal prison. On the day of our seminar, Ms. Downey noted that though hundreds of “Rudy” bottles were ultimately destroyed, many more of his creations are still in circulation; she estimated that they could sell for at least $550 million. Mr. Ponsot also believes Rudy fakes are still out there. “I think that people will try to sell them,” he said in a recent phone call. For his part, Mr. Ponsot—whose new winery, called Laurent Ponsot, will debut its first wines in the fall—added that he’s made sure his wines are “protected” from counterfeiting. Los Angeles-based attorney Don Cornwell has been keeping track of counterfeiters and counterfeit wines for over a decade—a hobby sparked by his outrage over all the fakes he found in the market. Mr. Cornwell teamed up with Ms. Downey and New York wine merchant Geoffrey Troy to investigate the bottles he suspected were fake and began posting his findings on Wineberserkers, a chat forum favored by passionate oenophiles and serious collectors. The forum topic Mr. Cornwell created in February 2012, titled “Rudy Kurniawan & the Global Wine Auction Fraud,” remains active to this day. A staggering 169 pages long as of this writing, it features photographs of fake bottles and auction results posted by Mr. Cornwell and others, as well as general wine-counterfeiting news. Mr. Cornwell believes the wine auction houses have largely “cleaned up their act” in the decade since he began his crusade. Jamie Ritchie, worldwide head of Sotheby’s Wine, agreed that the origin of wines offered at auction today receives far greater scrutiny. “People are willing to pay much higher prices for collections with great provenance,” he said. Counterfeit wines are sold at many other places besides auction houses, Ms. Downey cautioned. “ eBay has had a huge problem with people selling fakes,” she said, citing some “very obvious” bottles of fake Château Pétrus she found on the site. ( Ryan Moore, eBay’s director of global corporate affairs and communications, said that the company conducted an initial review of Château Pétrus bottles purchased on eBay and did not come across any counterfeit claims. Mr. Moore also noted that buyers may notify the company if they believe they bought counterfeit wine.) Ms. Downey believes much more fake wine is made in Europe than in the U.S. “There are at least five counterfeit wine rings in Europe,” she said. Though quite a few high-profile seizures of counterfeit Château Pétrus and Domaine de la Romanée-Conti (DRC) have been made in France in recent years, the sentences have been so light they hardly seem like a deterrent at all. A Russian counterfeiter got a mere two-year jail term in France in 2017 for selling 400 bottles of fake DRC, but the sentence was suspended and he went free. ‘Authenticating a wine is like authenticating a work of art.’ Ms. Downey pointed out that some European wineries, including Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, are working to combat fraud. She outlined a few of the methods some of them have adopted, including invisible ink, holograms and serial numbers on labels, as well as embossing directly on the bottles and proof tags hung around the necks. “I don’t believe in a single-solution answer to fraud,” she said. Her favored form of protection: a registry where collectors could provide information about wines and their histories, which could then be accessed by other collectors. A similar system is used in the diamond trade, but the wine world has yet to embrace such a safeguard. For the meantime, Ms. Downey offered advice and provided counterfeit-detection tools for seminar participants, including a jeweler’s loupe, a measuring tape, a UV light and UV-visible pens. She outlined her authentication process, which begins with careful scrutiny of the wine bottle—the loupe proved handy here—notably the label, the paper it’s printed on and the printing method and ink, as well as other components such as the capsule and the cork. Ultra-white paper, detectable under UV light, wasn’t in commercial use until the 1960s. With the aid of a microscope, one could detect if the paper was recycled, which would mean the wine couldn’t have been produced before the 1980s, when recycled paper was introduced for labels. “Authenticating a wine is like authenticating a work of art,” said Ms. Downey. She instructed participants to go slowly and to “look at the whole thing” first before zooming in on details. We split into groups and pored over the fake bottles Ms. Downey had assembled, as well as the bottles participants had brought along. We checked the labels’ paper with pens to ensure it wasn’t the modern recycled stuff not in use at the time of the purported vintage. We also checked the printing and saw that some letters were slightly off—a possible counterfeit clue. After close scrutiny of her bottles of Chave Hermitage and Domaine Ponsot Chapelle-Chambertin, Ms. Lin was relieved to receive confirmation that they were indeed real. As I was writing this column, news of another large-scale wine-fraud story broke. The Bordeaux négociant Grands Vins de Gironde was accused of faking the equivalent of almost 70,000 cases of wine over several years, “recreating” cheap wines as Bordeaux; just this week the company was fined 200,000 euros by a criminal court in Bordeaux. When I mentioned the case to Ms. Downey, she praised the French police and said she believed the increased attention to counterfeit fine wine had resulted in an increased number of arrests related to the counterfeiting of all kinds of wines. Above all, she emphasized that wine fraud isn’t a victimless crime. “It affects people who work very hard to make good wine, who are proud of their wines and their appellation,” she said. “It ruins their reputation and it destroys all their hard work.” With the right tools and a gimlet eye, she believes, we can all play a part in protecting that work.

— wine fraud  

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