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03.15.2012

Aubert de Villaine on Fake Wines

drcscribble.jpg"This has been a bit of an awakening for us," said Aubert de Villaine, when I cornered him after the 2009 vintage tasting in San Francisco three weeks ago and asked him about the controversy surrounding the recent Spectrum auction in London, which, in part, has led to the arrest of Rudy Kurniawan. "We didn't realize there was so much controversy."

De Villaine is, of course, the co-director of Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, and one of the most powerful and respected men in the fine wine industry. I felt, and still do feel, quite strongly that he has a responsibility to be a leader in helping an industry ripe with fraud clean itself up. Especially in the wake of Kurniawan's arrest.

In an online article today, Decanter magazine revealed that the outspoken Laurent Ponsot had assisted the FBI and the justice department in establishing their case against Kurniawan. In that article, Ponsot was quoted as saying "I believe 80% of pre-1980 Burgundy sold at auction is fake."

This is quite a claim. For his part, Aubert de Villaine clearly would not agree, based on what he told me on February 23, 2012.

"There seems to be almost.... what is the right word... hysteria about [counterfeit bottles]" said De Villaine. "No, perhaps hysteria is too strong a word. But the level of concern I do not think matches reality. There are not as many fakes out there as people think. They exist, but they are few."

"I don't know about the bottles being sold in this [February 8th, Spectrum] auction. We have not examined them, though the work that Don [Cornwell] has done is quite remarkable. What I do know is that I have been exposed to many bottles, bottles that people bring to us at the domaine to examine, and these people are sure these bottles are fakes. But almost always, after we look at them, they are not fake."

"We, ourselves, take extraordinary steps to control the distribution of the wines. We put numbers on bottles, on cases, and much more, and for good reasons. I want prices for our wines high, but at levels where collectors can buy. The result, however, is a weakness that people can buy and resell at higher prices."

"We do what is possible to do. With Hong Kong these days, I think counterfeiting bottles is quite tempting, and this [Spectrum] auction has caused much reflection. I am going to undertake to greatly deepen our expertise in labeling and our history of labeling."

"One of the problems is the time after the war. The printing was not always the same. Sometimes there was the circumflex over La Tâche, sometimes there was not. Don [Cornwall's] work was extraordinary, but he was not in possession of all the details required to decide whether a bottle was definitely fake. Some of the things he identified were not definitive. I'm seeing him tomorrow to discuss all of this."

"In some ways, it feels quite injust that we are on the spot with this, when we try so hard, more than many, to prevent such things. Our job is to create great wines, and I would like to concentrate on this," concluded De Villaine.

With that I thanked De Villaine and made my way to the back of the restaurant where we had held the tasting of the 2009 wines. There I found several Wilson Daniels employees scribbling over the labels of every bottle that had been opened for the tasting. These bottles would later be smashed into tiny pieces.

Comments (3)

03.16.12 at 7:59 AM

Great piece, Alder - and a unique insight. But I struggle with your assertion that De Villaine has a responsibility to clean up the fraud in the industry.

Certainly as an operator he has a responsibility to his business to protect its brand equity. And you could easily make the rotten apple argument, that what harms one domaine casts a dark shadow across others. But what we're talking about here is counterfeiting fraud, not the blending-syrah-into-pinot fraud. As such, the causality is external to the industry, isn't it?

So, aside from mounting a brand protection campaign to help collectors more accurately determine his wines' authenticity (as Ponsot appears to be doing), what's he to do?

I would think law enforcement would be better equipped - and more responsible - to take on the counterfeiting challenge than a winemaker.

My two cents.

Alder wrote:
03.16.12 at 8:58 AM

Steve,

Perhaps I haven't made myself clear. I'm not suggesting in the least that De Villaine has any responsibility to clean up the fraud. I am suggesting he has the responsibility to assist the authorities and other actors in the industry in doing so. This assistance would include validating or invalidating claims and findings of these third parties about what appears to be counterfeit wine, to make available to key authorities the minute details of printing specifications, historical production records, etc that would give those looking to stamp out fraud the definitive tools they need to quickly identify counterfeit wines and trace them to their sources.

And, I should say, that it looks like De Villaine is beginning to do that, and of course it's clear that Ponsot is already on the bandwagon as well.

Joe wrote:
11.06.12 at 10:59 AM

I read an article recently claiming that 95% of collectable wines being sold in Asia are counterfeit.

From what I can tell, counter-measures are starting to become available to the average collector.

Are there any other resources out there for us collectors to combat this problem?

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