Putting a Cork in Counterfeit Wines

Education is the key to avoiding wine fraud.
Education is the key to avoiding wine fraud. Image Used with Permission

From flavor and vintage to terroir, authenticity is the undisputed king of wine.

That’s why recent scandals involving the discovery of counterfeit bottles represent such a danger to the core values of the industry, and to the credibility of upscale wine programs.

While the most notorious counterfeiters are off the market (aka: in prison), some of their counterfeited wines are still circulating, and new technology makes creating even more imposter bottles easier.

To help advise beverage directors and avid collectors on how to best avoid being fooled by these remarkably well-concealed frauds, wine consultant Maureen Downey launched the website Winefraud.com in early April.

Downey previously worked with the FBI to build a case against notorious counterfeiter Rudy Kerniawan, and she has dedicated years of research to able to accurately identify fakes. With the launch of Winefraud.com’s vendor membership program, she hopes to share this knowledge and help avoid a loss of credibility for your restaurant or chief sommelier, whose reputation can be destroyed with the sale of just one counterfeit bottle.

“It’s apparent that consumers are getting more knowledgeable, and vendors need to be able to prove to people that they know what they’re doing.” Downey says. “And if we want to expect more oversight from the hospitality industry, we have to give [vendors] the tools to do better.”  

The easiest tool to utilize, she says, is the power of persistent and deep questioning. It’s especially critical to ask questions about provenance, and to require receipts if a bottle has been traded within the last couple of years. Downey also adds that small clues can be found in the specifics of producers’ labels, so inspecting the paper quality and print methods of labels is a useful practice.

All of this requires a little more work than many buyers have been willing to do in the past, however, it seems the market now requires this level of training and skill from high-level sommeliers.

“If you don’t take time to educate yourself, you are not being a professional,” she says. “Kerniawan’s arrest was a wake-up call for the public, and now they’re really holding sellers’ feet to the fire, which is I think why there’s been so much interest from people who want to learn how to authenticate.”

Having this knowledge on-hand can be especially important in the foodservice environment, where purchases of rare bottles of wine are typically few and far between and represent a significant upfront investment.

The payback that beverage directors hope to garner from exceptional offerings comes not only with the price-point, but also with prestige—both of which are threatened by the purchase of fraudulent wine.

Unfortunately, Downey says that the days of being able to rely on a broker simply because you’ve had positive dealings in the past are over.

“It doesn’t matter if you’ve been working with someone for 20 years, even your trusted broker may buy from sources that do even less diligence than auction houses, and with the permeation of the market with fake wines, it’s going to take a little more awareness and less pride.”

While your store may not yet be able to afford a bottle of Pétrus, it will never be able to afford purchasing and passing along a fake. So next time you’re thinking about pulling the trigger on a special bottle, make sure you’re not walking into the sale blind. 

By Emily Byrd

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