June 5, 2014

Wine Fraud: A Collector’s Hazard

By Marlene Koury

For those of us who drink inexpensive or modestly priced wine, wine fraud is not much of a problem.  But for the collector or wealthy connoisseur, wine fraud is a growing concern.  Most documented cases of wine fraud tend to involve the most famous and costly vintages, particularly Bordeaux wines from excellent vintages, which can go for tens of thousands of dollars.  The extravagant prices of these bottles make them ripe targets for counterfeiters….

It is tempting to imagine that wine counterfeiters possess something of the skill, taste, and elegance of suave thieves in caper movies.  Without such attributes, how could they approximate the best wines in the world?  Of course, a good caper is incomplete without a detective, and wine fraud has spawned a niche profession: the wine detective.

One of the more interesting cases involves wine owned by Bill Koch, brother of the more politically inclined Charles and David Koch, who had paid a half million dollars for four bottles of French wine engraved Th.J, which was believed to stand for Thomas Jefferson.  When Jefferson historians working at Monticello raised doubts about the authenticity of the bottles, Koch hired a wine detective named James Elroy, a former FBI agent whose ringtone is Ennio Morricone’s famous theme for The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly.  Elroy gathered a team of wine detectives and went after a wine collector who claimed to have found the bottles in a bricked-up cellar in Paris.  The wine detectives eventually discovered that the engraving on the bottles was made by a tool of modern dentistry that did not exist during Jefferson’s time.

So what does all this mean for the casual drinker or average collector?  Not a lot.  But if you ever splurge for a particularly expensive bottle, wine detective Bill Edgerton suggests checking for faint lines of dried glue around the bottom of the label – a telltale sign of a counterfeit.  Even more reliably, buy wine for its taste rather than its price, historical value, and bragging rights.  Edgerton explains that the most expensive and therefore most counterfeited wines are not always the best drinking wines.  He advises “[t]here are wines like an 1811 Chateau Y’qeum, from the year of the comet, that sell for $80,000.  It’s certainly historical and it is drinkable, but is it going to provide a pleasurable experience? Not for the people who enjoy wine.”

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