Jeannie Cho Lee
I spent two full days at Wine Fraud's wine authentication training classes in Hong Kong in early February 2017.
I walked in vaguely aware of how serious a problem wine fraud was around the world, but I walked out with a very clear picture of how easy it is to fake wine and why it is so prevalent.
The total value of fake wine according to Maureen Downey, one of the foremost experts on fake wine who was leading the wine authentication classes, is around $3 billion.
The value of just one fraudster, Rudy Kurniawan, currently serving time in jail, is valued at around $550 million. Then, if you add others such as Kahled Rouabah, Enzio and Nicola Lucca and Alex Anikin who were caught and whose wines are also circulating in the market, you can imagine how quickly this number can grow.
Sometimes fake wines are obvious - clearly misspelled wine names, errors on the label and overt inconsistencies in the packaging. Downey says the Asian market is flooded with many types and levels of fakes. For example, brands may be copied with just a slight change to its name; for example Penfolds as 'Penfoids'. It is very similar to the situation that the U.S.A was in in the 2000's when we had little education and lots of disposable income."
Another level of fake wines is the "special bottling" when a legitimate bottle is refilled with a less or cheaper wine. This type is among the easiest to identify according to Downey. She points to the fact that authentic bottles will have older corks, labels and capsules. "Counterfeiters often get things very wrong with their alleged 'refilled' bottles," explains Downy.
Using a jeweler's loupe provided to us during the class, we were able to see how different high quality printed labels are from the cheaper inkjet-printed labels. With a naked eye, it is difficult to see, but with a magnifying glass, it is crystal clear. Other details on the label also give fake wines away - the details and colors on the label, as well as the images and letters are much sharper in authentic labels.
There are now a growing number of anti-fraud technologies being used by top wineries and I ask Downey how reliable these new technologies are and which are the best.
"I do not believe in any single layer solution," says Downey. "Too many of the 'tech solutions' are really nothing more than cosmetic assurances that can and will be counterfeited in the near future. All technology can potentially be hacked or reverse-engineered." She says her team has seen wines being taken out by Coravin, a tool used to take wine out without removing the cork, and refilled with other wines. A handy tool enjoyed by sommeliers is meant to allow small pours without having to open the bottle, thereby preserving it, can also be used to create fake wines!
Prooftag bubble tags, a security seal used on bottles to authenticate wines, are used by top properties such as Chateau Lafite Rothschild. According to Downey however, Prooftag has "proven to fall off over time, and can be peeled off."
So what can you trust? One of the most reliable clues is the label. Downey says, "Look for the type of paper that is used, ink, microprinting, textures, cutouts, and layering of these together have shown the hardest for counterfeiters to recreate." It is an inexpensive way for wine producers to make their labels difficult or impossible to replicate. This has limitation too, though since the bottle can be refilled and the original label kept intact. In this case, the cork and capsule provide clues.
The best way to keep ahead of fraudsters is to be wary of fake wines: Know when wine region (appellation) laws came into effect, be aware of bottle type, color and size used in different eras and markets, know the years of when new technology like laser printing and different standard bottles became widely used, keep up to date on anti-fraud technology including micro-writing and holograms used by top wineries and understand the materials used in different time periods for packaging wine. Also invest in some inexpensive gadgets like the handy jeweler's loupe, which is now permanently in my bag.