How Wine Cops Detect Counterfeits

For the average wine drinker there is little risk of buying a counterfeit bottle of Yellow Tail merlot, and even if there were, most people wouldn’t know the difference. But for those privileged few who can afford $1,000 or more per bottle, counterfeiting has become a serious concern. Although the problem is not rampant, Wine Spectator magazine recently estimated that 5 percent of rare vintages sold privately or at auction are counterfeit, and the U.S. government has taken notice. Investigating whether wine houses, collectors or importers are knowingly selling counterfeits, federal prosecutors have subpoenaed several top auction houses, including Christie’s in London and Zachys in New York.

Fine-wine experts say most problems can be avoided by working with credible, established retailers. According to Dreyfus, Ashby & Co. Vice President Patrick Séré, which deals exclusively with high-profile Chateau Petrus, people do try to pass fake labels of Petrus, but "if you buy a Petrus from a reputable store, you are 99.9 percent sure to have the genuine article because these people buy from the importers themselves.”

But how do importers and wine houses investigate these bottles, and what tools does a wine cop have in his arsenal to spot a faux bottle? NEWSWEEK’s Alexandra Gekas spoke with John Kapon, the president and auction director at New York City’s Acker-Merrall & Condit Co., named America’s oldest wine shop by Frommer’s, to find out how professionals spot the fakes. Excerpts:

NEWSWEEK: What is the first thing you look for when you are offered a vintage bottle of wine?
John Kapon:
The first step is to know who you're dealing with, as far as the collector and owner, when you're dealing with fine and rare wines. Somebody can't just walk in from the street. We generally don't accept what I call “mega wines” or very old and rare wines from collectors who we do not know or who have not established a reputation for being long and active collectors. But once we can agree on the evaluation and someone decides they want to sell the wine, we begin the inspection process.

What types of tests do you do on a bottle to verify it?
The inspection process is a thorough one. We examine the cork and the capsule [the plastic wrap over the cork], which has to be correct. Obviously, there are some brands that were inconsistent with what they did in branding corks, or that didn't necessarily brand their corks at all. For example, Rhone and Burgundy wines can be difficult to authenticate that way, but we have seen counterfeits branded incorrectly. For example, with one of the classic counterfeit wines, Petrus, there are fake magnums that have the new cork for Petrus. Back then they had a different style cork and a different branding than they do today. So someone who batched counterfeit Petrus used a modern cork and that's an obvious standout.

We also inspect the fill, the level of the wine. You always want to see a level that is not right up to the cork in its fill. Also, the texture of a label and how the label looks is very important. You can kind of tell if you're dealing with a facsimile—a lot of counterfeits have a glossy feel to them that is not correct, because an old wine label should have texture or age to it. But a lot of wines have been reconditioned. There were a lot of wines that were rereleased in the 1970s or 1980s by châteaux, and these look like an ‘82 Bordeaux because they were relabeled at the château, so again, it’s not always an exact science.

What is reconditioning?
Reconditioning is when chateaux or collectors open up the wine and either add the same vintage or a younger vintage to fill it up and top it off, and sometimes sulfur is added again to keep the wine fresh and preserved. The intentions were good, but there's a large contingency of collectors who feel getting a reconditioned wine is like getting a used car.

What characteristics do you look for in the wine itself?
We look at the colors of the wines and the sediment levels. Older wines should be throwing off more sediments. If it has been reconditioned, that changes it, but if it has been, it should say so on the bottle. The last step is to actively taste these wines, which I have done at special events to know what the real ones look like, to look at the corks and the bottles and to give yourself a reference by which to judge these bottles.

How can collectors avoid counterfeits?
As a buyer, it's important to know who you're dealing with as far as the merchant and the auction house. Most auction houses have a thorough inspection process. Ten years ago, the idea of counterfeit wines wasn't a concern. Before, you wouldn't see people tampering with capsules, but now due to the increased value and awareness due to the [current FBI] investigation, I think people have really stepped up their inspection processes. But it's not just up to the auction houses, it’s also up to the brokers and the people in the retail trade who are  not always as thorough in their inspection. So, hopefully, people will look more closely at what they're putting their hands on instead of just selling it as quickly as possible.

How big of a concern is this for auction houses?
Not more than usual, it's not an exact science, so if we have a reasonable doubt about something, we won't offer it. There are fabulous collections that may have a lemon here and there, which is not the fault of the owner. It’s a constant learning process. You have to keep your eyes open. We stand behind what we offer. If anyone has a problem with something and they deal with it in a timely manner we take it back because we don't want anyone to be uncomfortable.

Is there any technology that allows you to test the wine itself for fraudulence?
I know that they're trying to come out with something, but nothing has been FDA approved. It would be great if that could happen, but again wines that have been reconditioned can skew those results. It used to be the concept that the wine has to be perfect and now it’s the reverse, where people would rather the wine be pure and not reconditioned, but this has been done thousands of times, so if they did do some testing, a lot of the wines would have skewed results.

Where are counterfeits coming from?
It’s not that widespread and there are limited sources for these wines. Most of the counterfeits are coming out of Europe and it’s really limited to 12 or 15 brands, the most high-profile brands and high-profile wines of the century. Obviously, these wines get a lot of attention from the more serious collectors, so obviously the issue of them being counterfeited is greater, but the average wine buyer does not have to concern himself with counterfeit wines. The people who have to concern themselves with counterfeit wines are the people who can spend $100,000 on wines and not have it affect their day-to-day living.

So what are the most counterfeited wines?
It's not anyone's fault except the crooks who are creating these wines. Counterfeits tend to be from great vintages that are valuable. It is a small group of elite wines that are candidates for a counterfeiter. Some of the biggest [counterfeited] brands that I have seen or tasted include Chateau Petrus. A majority of counterfeits are magnums (double bottles) or larger. Others to be careful with are Mouton and Lafite. This is not universal for each of these chateaux, nor is it every year.