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09.29.2008

Confessions of a Wine Counterfeiter

Faked world-class wines are in the news enough these days that I can decisively call them trendy. They've already got a book and their own Hollywood movie on the way. But I didn't know just how chic counterfeit wine was until I found out that my friend Lettie Teague (who happens to be the executive wine editor of Food & Wine Magazine) recently spent some time faking a bottle of 1982 Château Mouton Rothschild for a dinner party.

Of course, like many of Teague's most interesting wine-related exploits, this latest adventure was done in the service of a story, which appears in the October issue of Food & Wine. It's worth a read, if only for the chuckle you might get at how bent out of shape some of her friends get when she reveals that the 100 point wine that some of them loved wasn't quite what they thought it was.

Teague goes to a moderate amount of effort to fake her wine, enlisting the help of a winemaker friend in Washington state, but she missed out on the real fun as far as I'm concerned. She bought a real bottle of the stuff, so she didn't get a chance to doctor up a bottle with a fake label and spend hours "distressing" her new creation to make it look authentic. Half the fun would have been figuring out how to fade the ink and where to abrade the paper, not to mention figuring out how to grow a little mold under the capsule.

Despite skipping some of the parts of the counterfeiting process that I would have been most excited about, the story is a fun read. Check it out.

Thanks to my friend Jack at Fork & Bottle for the tip.

Comments (12)

Jack wrote:
09.29.08 at 10:50 PM

...so she didn't get a chance to doctor up a bottle with a fake label and spend hours "distressing" her new creation to make it look authentic. Half the fun would have been figuring out how to fade the ink and where to abrade the paper, not to mention figuring out how to grow a little mold under the capsule.

Lettie needs to visit Macau. They can complete this task in about 20 minutes. Workshops are offered too, for a low, low price.

09.30.08 at 6:41 AM

Great post Alder, and hey, good to know, Jack! Unfortunately, perception is everything. People judge books by covers.

Morton Leslie wrote:
09.30.08 at 4:11 PM

I think this sort of thing is a dirty trick. It always works. A sugar pill relieves pain as well as a NSAID in about 30% of the population. No wonder the value of a label on a decent tasting wine. A fellow bragged to me once about fooling an avid, opinionated wine collector with a re-bottled/re-foiled Opus One containing Charles Krug Fortissimo. Bad form, I say.

Alder wrote:
09.30.08 at 4:39 PM

Morton,

Well, you should read Lettie's article. It's clearly not set up as a true sting operation, the party where she reveals her fakery is more just a good ending than an attempt to validate her subterfuge.

Morton Leslie wrote:
09.30.08 at 5:50 PM

I actually did read the article. I think this sort of thing is insensitive and I don't respect a person would never pull such a stunt, particularly as fodder for a wine piece.

The person who is fooled is always too embarrassed to admit the label led them astray so they stick to their guns that the fake wine was their favorite. They try to be good sports, but they are embarrassed. They don't know they have been misled by the oldest trick in the book. I hope the person who wrote it finds herself in the position of having people around her whom she admires and respects and is dealt a similar callous embarrassment and loss of face.

Anonymous wrote:
09.30.08 at 6:05 PM

One memory told to me by a well known winemaker. About 40 years ago working as a cellar hand, no formal training, he was given a glass of "wine" at the end of the long dinner by his employer. A wine writer was present, the young man's wife, and several other guests. The young guy was asked what he thought it was. He hazard some guess. Sherry? It was scotch and everyone at the table had a hearty laugh. They thought it humorous that he couldn't tell the difference between sherry and scotch. You don't do this to people.

Dylan wrote:
09.30.08 at 6:44 PM

That is one expensive prank. At the cost of making the CFO feel cheated; everyone else seemed to have had their eyes opened to a wine they likely would not have considered.

I remember growing up with cartoons where a popular joke was for the character to eat an exotic food of some sort, chewing and grinning about how good it tastes only to have it revealed moments later it was some sort of animal organ. Cue the spit-take.

The thing is, I always figured in that situation, if it had tasted good and I had no idea prior, why would my stomach turn after the fact? Just because of the ingredients? "What do you mean I'm eating chocolate covered ants?!" No, I would say, "Wow, really? These are chocolate covered ants, they're great!" (This of course excluding any health-affecting ingredients)

The only time there would be a poor reaction to the true nature of what is being savored is when there is an air of ownership. Saying you're an expert in navel oranges, and then after raving about the navel oranges you ate, you are told they were tangelo's--it is a bruise to the ego and what you stood so proudly for.

I think that explains the difference in reaction between the CFO and the others. The spit-take versus the pleasant revelation so to speak.

Hank wrote:
09.30.08 at 8:54 PM

I think it is also a reflection that many, many wines -- even cheap ones -- are structurally sound, or are engineered to taste that way (much like a McBurger is engineered to taste like a real burger). At their core, they are all fine, and a great deal of wine scoring is either personal preference or hair-splitting.

Katie wrote:
10.01.08 at 11:13 AM

I agree with Dylan...the person who can laugh and learn from the experience will grow, whereas the person who pouts about being duped stagnates and festers, and learns nothing about perception.

rs wrote:
10.05.08 at 8:51 PM

Get a life. Years ago I hosted a tsting of 70/82 Bordeaux. I slipped in a couple of ringers, Chateau Musar and a Grand Res Spanish wine. The top wine was the '82 Pichon Lalande and the wines from Lebanon and Spain came in 2nd and 3rd. Some of my "guests" are still upset bc I "tricked" them. That was ~14 yrs ago. We all enjoyed the evening until the wines were unveiled.

10.07.08 at 8:57 AM

To those here who are "offended" that anyone would do this, you are just the kind of "marks" that the counterfeiters are looking for. Your fragile egos will be too crushed to admit you were duped, in the vacuum of your absent ability to self deprecate, the counterfeiter will fill the void with antifreeze, Gallo, even off-year Bordeaux, as the better frauds will use.

If you can't take it among "friends" as a mere triviality, or a study in the effects of foreknowledge in wine tasting, then how will you take it when you have to admit you actively sought a fake? When you have to report how much money you were bilked? That you weren't even able to tell it was fake?

I've tasted fake wine, on several occasions, only once did I know it was fake before I tasted it, simply due to the condition of the label, and the seams in the glass bottle. Every time the wine tasted "good" to downright great - counterfeiters (of higher profile wines such as collectible Bordeaux and Burgundy) avoid risk of detection by recycling their bottles/labels/corks and by using juice that could hit the dartboard of taste when it comes to a given bottling/vintage.

Many people here have probably tasted a fake wine, without even knowing it. Many people here might be saving/cellaring/nurturing a bottle for a special occasion, not knowing it's fake. Some put the figures for fraud as high as 10% of all wine at auction. And with auction houses doing little to nothing to stop it (they just say buyer beware, unless this Koch case gets more steam behind it...) what makes any of us think the figure will drop? The easiest wines to fake are the most expensive ones right now, Bordeaux from 1900 to 1945. No radioactive particles, much undocumented bottle variation due to negociant bottling versus chateau bottling, and almost a hundred years to fake/make/shrug off any kind of provenance.

If you think you are impervious to being had, you've been had. And if you can't laugh at yourself, well, you've got bigger problems.

Sherry wrote:
10.14.08 at 2:33 PM

This is another really interesting article - does anyone know what exactly this counterfeit wine industry is worth?

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