Countering Counterfeit Wines

Many citizens recycle their empty wine bottles in order to be green. But certain shady citizens and sellers recycle because they want that other kind of green that ultra-pricey bottles can bring, industry insiders say. Empty bottles of pricey vintages, obtainable from restaurants specializing in great wine, can make their way to the underbelly of the wine trade, where counterfeiters refill one or more of the bottles, their prestigious labels intact, with inexpensive wine. The bottles would then be re-corked and their necks wrapped in new foil. Voilà — the bottles are ready for resale.

The world is suddenly awash in newly minted, cash-heavy wine collectors. As they vie with European and American collectors for trophy wines, prices have soared to levels unimaginable just a few years ago. Château Lafite Rothschild 1982, for example, which was originally released for under $500 a case, sold for $28,800 a case two weeks ago at Christie’s. Last month at a Zachys auction, two cases of Château d’Yquem 1945, the legendary sweet wine, fetched an astonishing $178,500 each. No wonder such wines have become fodder for fakers, who have one leg up on art counterfeiters. While a prospective buyer can examine art closely, the best test of the authenticity of wine is in the drinking — and that can come only after purchase.

How much fake wine is out there? It’s impossible to say, since nobody knows how many skillful examples are taken for authentic. One certainty: It’s a relatively small circle of stellar wines that are the target of counterfeiters, what John Kapon, the president of Acker Merrall & Condit, a leading retailer and auctioneer, calls “an A+++ problem.” Happily, that rules out the less stellar-rated wines most of us drink. But it does make for a highend cat-and-mouse game. Earlier this year, just prior to an auction in Los Angeles, Christie’s took the unusual step of withdrawing a featured lot of six magnums of Château Le Pin 1982 (estimated between $60,000 and $100,000), a rare St. Emilion, after stripping of the neck capsules revealed corks of questionable authenticity. “We have now installed a system in which at least two people must inspect any consignment worth over $10,000,” the wine sales director for the Americas at Christie’s, Richard Brierley, said. Mr. Kapon reports that he recently removed the foil on a purported bottle of a great Burgundy, La Tache 1971, only to discover that the cork was branded 1970. That unremarkable vintage is worth only a quarter of the price of the 1971.

An unpublicized effect of the fake wine problem is that the top Bordeaux châteaus including Lafite Rothschild, Mouton Rothschild, Latour, Margaux, and Haut Brion, have cut back their long-standing service of “reconditioning” old bottles to extend their lives. That process involves removing the old corks, tasting each bottle, and “topping off” those that show the proper character with wine from a “donor” bottle. New corks stating that the bottle has been reconditioned at the château are then inserted.

But now the properties are wary of giving the gift of provenance to possibly fake wine through reconditioning. The owner of Chateau Lafite-Rothschild, Baron Eric de Rothschild, said, “At one time, we sent our maitre de chai [cellarmaster] to the U.S., Britain, and Germany to re-cork our wines. We did thousands of bottles. No more.”

One prestigious winery continues to conduct traveling reconditioning clinics: Penfolds of Australia. Earlier this month, a stream of collectors lugged their bottles of Penfolds wine to a clinic held at the Westin Hotel. One of those collectors was a former Time Warner executive, Michael Pepe, who arrived with five bottles of Penfolds’ greatest wine, Grange, from the 1985 vintage. “I always choose the bottle that looks like it’s in the worst condition to open and taste first,” Penfolds’ head winemaker, Peter Gago, said. Once uncorked and tasted, the “worst” of Mr. Pepe’s Granges was declared to be just fine. The bottle was “refreshed” with a bit of a younger Grange, and resealed with a cork bearing the clinic’s date. On the back of the bottle went a tracking label attesting to its reconditioning.

Wines brought to the clinic that are drinkable but don’t measure up to Mr. Gago’s taste test are resealed with a blank cork. “If there’s an ulterior motive to what we’re doing,” Mr. Gago said, “it’s to take faulty bottles out of the system.” With auction prices having exceeded $1,100 a bottle for top vintages of Grange, it has been a target of counterfeiters. Would Mr. Gago consider giving up the re-corking clinics? “Absolutely not,” he answered. “If anything, they are an excellent vehicle to detect fakes.”

At least now, though, wine fakery is being countered by new technology. At Château d’Yquem, a tiny serial number is embossed on each bottle of new wine. So-called “smart corks,” embedded with a chip, are being tested by the Italian winery Arnaldo Caprai. The giant Australian winery, Hardys, has imprinted the neck label of its top wine, Eileen Hardy Shiraz, with vineyard DNA.

The simplest DNA test of all, however, is provided by Ann Colgin, owner of an eponymous Napa Valley boutique winery whose wines have sold at auction for more than $700 a bottle. Upon request, Ms. Colgin will imprint any bottle of her wine with a wet lipstick kiss.

By Peter Hellman.