Fabulous Fake Wine

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.”

Even so, Bill Knopka, vice president and general manager of Tapp Technology, which prints labels for more than 400 wineries in North America, serving CakeBread, Staglin Family Vineyards, B.V., Fosters Wine Estates and others, says California vintners are now concerned “over the integrity of their brands . . . and express concern over counterfeiting.” He touts Tapp Technology’s printing process as impossible to imitate — but he has seen fake labels in which sellers go to great lengths to capture minute details.

That may be why Colgin Cellars, along with three other high-end California wineries, is using Kodak’s anti-counterfeiting technology. Ann Colgin, owner of Colgin Cellars, sells her vintages for up to $800 at auctions. Her ultrapremium reds are available only at top restaurants and through a mailing list. She’s known for leaving her signature lipstick mark on every bottle, explaining in an e-mail that “I began kissing the bottles at a charity auction in Naples, Florida, in 1995 . . . and the tradition stuck.”

She says she is not aware of any Colgin knockoffs. But in June, in addition to her lipstick — which probably contains some of her own DNA — she added Kodak’s invisible solution to the packaging. Kodak’s Steven Powell says the markers can be placed anywhere but on the glass — on the capsule, label or other packaging — and are detectable only with proprietary Kodak hand-held readers.

“The customers don’t have to change anything,” says Powell. “They can add our technology.”

But Steve Bachmann, author of the award-winning blog The Wine Collector and the head of Vinfolio Inc., a premier online wine store, isn’t much of a fan. He asked Kodak how to buy one of its hand-held readers and was told the company would not sell it, he says. It irked Bachmann that the system doesn’t extend to anyone beyond the producer.

He’s more impressed by Prooftag, based in France, where false Burgundies abound. The company offers a supposedly tamperproof strip on the foil capsule, and each bottle has an ID using one-of-a-kind air-bubble patterns from the glass — not unlike a thumbprint — along with a reference number that can be checked on the Web.

“If you’re Joe Consumer, you have the ability to go on a Web site with Prooftag and check the bottle to see that your bottle is genuine. You can’t do that with Kodak — at least, not yet,” Bachmann says. The tag has been adopted by Blankiet Estates of Napa Valley, among others.

With fakes flooding into the country, wealthy software founder Russell Frye of Massachusetts, one of the best-known wine collectors in the world, last month founded the site, which says it is “devoted to helping the wine industry fight the battle against counterfeiting.” He offers ways to find out if a wine is authentic, and a process for reporting bogus wines — and lists the Top 10 most commonly counterfeited wines.

But Hollywood’s Hagar has some lower-tech pointers for avoiding pricey faux wines: “An old bottle of wine should have sediment, the ullage [or the fill level of the wine] should be low, and they should watch out for the cork,” Hagar advises. “If it looks too beautiful, it’s too good to be true.”

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