By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
ONE OF THE OLDEST BAR TRICKS in the book involves filling an empty bottle of pricey vodka with a cheapo replacement. Now, wine counterfeiters are slapping fake, but very real-looking, expensive labels on wines that are showing up in California, with France a key source of the problem.
“It’s usually older wines that are fraudulent — there’s more profit in it,” says Sammy Hagar, the former Van Halen front man. Known these days as the Red Rocker, he not only markets his own Cabo Wabo tequila, but the California native has been collecting wine for more than 30 years and now owns 10,000 bottles “from all over the planet.”
Hagar was once duped into buying a case of ’59 Margaux, realizing only when he finally examined the bottles that the packaging was far too pristine. The bottle, cork, label — everything — looked new. Hagar’s wine broker told him that the winery had supposedly rebottled and recorked the wine. But when Hagar sampled the wine, which was good, he knew it wasn’t a ’59 Margaux. It tasted way too “young.” He traded it back to his broker.
The musician says fine wine can go through five or six hands in the “gray market,” where wine is sold outside normal distribution channels by resellers who have no direct relationship with the winery. “Sometimes I’ll buy someone’s whole cellar of wine and I’ll not even go through it for a year. A lot of times, by then you forget about where you bought it.”
Lou Liuzzi, owner of Los Angeles’ Wine Hotel, carries a vast selection of fine and rare wines and operates a storage facility for wine collectors, and he knows “a lot of people who have encountered counterfeit wine. There’s a lot out there,” and it’s “getting bigger and bigger in the older auction market.”
That became clear last year after Christie’s auction house got caught up in a global wine scandal when William Koch, a billionaire collector of wine, art and antiques, filed a lawsuit in New York against wine merchant Hardy Rodenstock. The famed German wine dealer had peddled extremely rare 18th-century wines known as the “Jefferson bottles,” which Rodenstock claimed had belonged to Thomas Jefferson. The bottles were said to have been found in a bricked-up cellar in Paris in 1985, and were, in fact, marked with the initials “Th.J.”
That year, Christie’s experts evaluated the bottles for Rodenstock, finding them to be genuine. Koch bought them in 1988. But following years of swirling rumors, Koch filed suit last year after his private investigation team — made up of former FBI and British-intelligence agents — as well as several other skeptical specialists declared the four bottles to be fakes.
Koch recently filed a second major wine-related lawsuit, this time against Eric Greenberg, a Silicon Valley entrepreneur. Koch alleges that Greenberg sold him fake French wines through New York–based Zachys Wine Auction Inc. He’s also suing the auction house.
Little wonder why Scott Torrence, head of Christie’s wine department in Los Angeles, often goes through prolonged deliberations before putting up bottles that can sell for more than $10,000. Torrence hosted two Los Angeles wine auctions in October and in early November, bringing in a cool $10.4 million. A Christie’s press release cooed that the sale illustrates “the rise of Los Angeles as an important international center for fine wine auctions.”
Auction experts investigate the history of ownership of the wine — but the label and cork play a key role in unearthing fakes. Torrence says he examines the label’s paper quality and printing methods, searching for clues that suggest modernity — a bad sign. Through the glass, he closely examines the cork, because shrinkage and stains indicate old cork — a good sign.
Torrence also inspects the gluing that adheres the label. If a glue strip is horizontal when the winery has traditionally gone vertical, Torrence gets skeptical.
Torrence and his colleagues were once trying to decide if a Magnum 1900 Château Margaux, which would sell for $11,000 or more, was a “go” for an auction. The team gingerly inspected the turn-of-the-century glass, which is darker than modern glass because it is hand-blown and contains flaws. They had to cut away the capsule covering the top and neck of the bottle to examine the cork — through the glass — with a high-powered flashlight. They peered unsuccessfully, hoping to find the year 1900 branded on the cork.
The group decided not to put it up for sale. But as a team member moved the magnum, the old glass cracked into pieces, spilling wine and freeing up the cork, which, it turned out, did have “1900” branded on it.
So far, Torrence says, California collectors see mostly French fakes, not faux California wines. “It is much easier to move fake wines through a larger audience than a narrow audience,” he says, and California wines are still sold mostly to a more narrow domestic market. If disreputable sellers are “going to risk it, why not do it for a larger audience?”
HE’S SURE THAT FAKE California wines are “out there,” but the problem is not “nearly as big as a concern for wines that have been around for two centuries.”