Hints of Berry, Oak and Scandal

By Benjamin Wallace
Sunday, November 25, 2007

Earlier this month, I attended a wine tasting in Los Angeles held by a man named Bipin Desai, a theoretical physicist who is also one of the world's most seasoned old-wine collectors. The event featured two fabled châteaux, Cheval Blanc and Yquem, and included nearly 30 vintages from each. Most of the wines came straight from their makers, but Desai had acquired a handful of the rarest bottles from private sources. One of those, a 1947 Cheval Blanc, was suspiciously full -- wines lose liquid over time through evaporation -- so he excluded it from the tasting. The 1921 Cheval Blanc didn't look right, either. "We're 50-50 sure it's truly authentic," Desai announced, and let the roomful of collectors, each of whom had paid thousands of dollars to attend the tasting, decide whether to open it.

Thirty years ago, sommeliers never bothered to question the provenance of old wines. Now they have no choice. As the price of premium labels exploded over the past two decades, fakes have annexed a growing swath of the "old and rare" market. Old-wine auctions steadily lost credibility among the most serious connoisseurs, but only in the past year, as the result of a lawsuit filed by a rich Florida collector named William Koch, did the problem of counterfeit wine seep into general awareness. Koch's suit, now pending in federal court, charges that a German wine dealer who calls himself Hardy Rodenstock peddled forged wines, including a famous cache of Bordeaux purportedly from the collection of Thomas Jefferson, four bottles of which Koch bought through two other dealers.

There are more fake bottles on the market today than ever before, to hear Sotheby's wine chief Serena Sutcliffe tell it, but the sensational Rodenstock case sparked a misperception: that the problem is pervasive. In fact, the current controversy concerns old and rare wines almost exclusively. These bottles fetch the highest prices, and therefore the greatest profits for counterfeiters. But there is another explanation, and it bodes well for the wine-drinkers of tomorrow: Technology makes it almost impossible to get away with faking new vintages. Science and standardization -- the modern ills bemoaned in nostalgia circles as corrupting the world of vinous individuality -- may be the very things that preserve that world and consumers' confidence in it. So the Rodenstock case, potentially the biggest counterfeit wine scandal in history, could also be the last.

Consider the wines in question. Bottles like these, supposedly dating from the 18th century, come cloaked in the fog of wine prehistory. Before 1923, most of a vineyard's harvest was bottled not by the château but by merchants, so two bottles of the same wine could legitimately look very different. For years, châteaux liberally opened old wines, topped them off and recorked them with a fresh cork -- a practice that allowed forgers to hawk bogus wines in bottles with official imprimaturs without raising suspicion. Counterfeits could be low-tech and still persuasive. A lone perpetrator with the right kind of cork-puller could easily carry out small-scale fraud.

The situation is different now. In 1923, leading châteaux cut out the middlemen and started bottling their own wine, ensuring that bottles contain what their labels advertise. Modern château records are more complete, and leading winemakers have tightened recorking rules.

Modern vintages became even harder to fake in the late 1980s and early 1990s, when the leading Bordeaux châteaux decided to fight forgers head on. Château Pétrus, the cult winemaker in Pomerol, began printing labels with codes that are visible only under ultraviolet light. Yquem, in Sauternes, began using stronger glue for its labels. Margaux, in the Médoc, uses a laser to etch a serial code onto the neck of each bottle.

These measures have also spawned a small industry of counter-counterfeiting technologies. Last summer, four leading Napa Valley wineries announced that they would start using a system developed by Kodak that allows them to mark labels and bottles with an invisible code that can be read by a handheld device. Hewlett-Packard has also gotten into the game, teaming up with a label-maker to incorporate scannable codes into wine labels.

The possibilities don't end there. Among a raft of other technologies now marketed to winemakers are seals with an air-bubble "fingerprint"; bottles, labels and corks with botanical DNA; nanotech tracers embedded in bottles or labels; and radio-transponder chips implanted in corks. Other technological innovations make it harder for fake wines to go undetected on the back end. Owners of questionable but expensive collections are understandably reluctant to sacrifice one bottle to determine the authenticity of the others, but a nuclear physicist at the University of Bordeaux has devised a noninvasive radiometric method that accurately pegs any wine made since 1953 to the year of its origin. Now you can have your wine and date it, too.

Koch recently filed a second lawsuit, this one targeting a California collector named Eric Greenberg, alleging that he knowingly consigned wines that another auction house had previously deemed fakes, as well as the retailer Zachys, which passed Greenberg's bottles along. This suit, as well as Koch's earlier and threatened future ones, put auction houses on notice that "caveat emptor" will no longer fly as a defense. And Russell Frye, a collector who tag-teamed with Koch and filed a lawsuit against a California retailer on the same day that the suit against Rodenstock was filed, has just launched the first Web site that directly combats wine forgery. Among other features, www.WineAuthentication.com includes a registry where members can record their purchases of rare wines, a wine-authentication service, photos of suspect bottles and a list of the 10 most frequently counterfeited wines. The first two on the list are the 1921 and 1947 Cheval Blanc.

At that recent California tasting I attended, everyone, not surprisingly, was for uncorking the 1921 Cheval Blanc. So we did. Desai and several other experienced tasters insisted that it was the real thing. But Christian Navarro, the sommelier for the event, told me that he'd tasted the wine 15 to 20 times and that this one was "not even close" to the genuine article. There was no way to resolve the matter definitively -- a problem that shouldn't trouble the oenophiles of 2091, as they savor dusty bottles from the revered 2005 vintage, digital scanners and ultraviolet pen-lights in hand.

Benjamin Wallace is the author of the forthcoming book "The Billionaire's Vinegar: The Mystery of the World's Most Expensive Bottle of Wine."

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