Spotting a fake wine

fake wine provenance People & Places Articles
  • Monday 16 July 2007

Following her report on forgeries last month, Margaret Rand looks at the latest safeguards being taken to outwit the fakers. Laser etching, microchips, holograms, even DNA – producers are using ever more advanced technology

Following her report on forgeries last month, Margaret Rand looks at the latest safeguards being taken to outwit the fakers. Laser etching, microchips, holograms, even DNA – producers are using ever more advanced technology

A friend who is a City financial whizz once gave me some excellent advice: if something seems too good to be true, it probably is. He was talking about investments, but it could equally well be applied to wine. You’re offered a case of 1982 Le Pin in magnums? Be very careful. Cheval Blanc 1947? Remember what your mother used to say when, as a child, you picked up something in the street: you don’t know where it’s been. Has it, for example, ever been to Cheval Blanc?

Estimates vary as to the quantity of forged wine swilling around the secondary market of auction houses, brokers and merchants: some, like Serena Sutcliffe MW of Sotheby’s, believe it’s a very big problem indeed. Others, like most Bordeaux château owners (if they mean what they say), don’t think the forgery problem applies to them.

‘I suspect the problem isn’t huge, at least with Château Margaux,’ says Paul Pontallier of Margaux; ‘Pétrus or Le Pin is different: the limited quantity means they can fetch extraordinary prices. Margaux, Lafite or Latour reach high prices, but not that level, and so far they haven’t been tempting for a forger. It may be different in the future.’ Says Jacques Thienpont of Le Pin: ‘I have no idea about the size of the problem; I prefer not to know.’

The same thing is true of some Champagne houses: Patrice Noyelle of Pol Roger says that, ‘Pol Roger is never forged. It’s not famous enough, thank God.’ Veuve Clicquot, on the other hand, has copyrighted its shade of yellow, and has a rogues’ gallery of fakes in its offices.

The key to buying safely is provenance, and a healthy dose of scepticism. Auction houses now demand provenance; so do brokers and merchants. Zachys in New York expects you to be able to show where your wine has been for the last 15 years before it will accept it for sale. At Sotheby’s, ‘we verify provenance,’ says Sutcliffe; ‘we don’t take verbal provenance on trust.’

Farr Vintners demands evidence of where the wine has come from, and never pays cash. ‘Most of what we buy is in bond, where it was shipped after the vintage, and can be traced back to the original shipment. Most of our purchases from collectors are of wines that were bought either from us or other reputable merchants, and have often never left the bonded warehouse.’

The job of dealers on the secondary market will be made easier in the future by measures increasingly being taken by producers to make forgery more difficult. Sometimes, as with Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, these measures were originally taken to tell the estate who its customers were rather than to address forgery. ‘For the last couple of years all bottles have been numbered, and a record is kept by all the Domaine’s agents around the world of the numbers and who they went to,’ says Adam Brett-Smith of Corney & Barrow. ‘There’s also a secret process on the label, which can be examined. The bottles are unique to DRC, and very costly to replicate: since 1993 it’s had bottles where the neck is parallel lower down than usual.’

Hi-tech helpers

Such details – unique bottles or signs on labels, like the pattern that appears on recent Pétrus labels under UV light – are common ways of identifying bottles. Laser-etching the glass with a serial number that can be traced back is another: Château Margaux started etching bottles in 1989, and has had specific numbers since 1995. ‘If I’m in Shanghai I can put a number into my computer and see which négociant bought it and when it was shipped,’ says Pontallier. In Australia, Penfolds laser-etches its bottles, as does Moët in Champagne, also making the label tougher to fake. Forged labels often use cheaper printing, whose print will come off if you wet and rub it. Forgers also use cheaper bottles, with a shallower punt.

Technology is moving on all the time: some producers have a microtext code in the label which can only be seen under magnification, and which again offers traceability back to the original purchaser. Sassicaia might have a microchip in its label in the future; after the discovery of large-scale forgery of the 1995 vintage the bottle has been redesigned to make forgery more difficult. Holograms in the labels are also being used by some wineries, though it is said that you can buy copies of such technology in Shanghai. Such activity explains the reticence California’s Colgin Cellars, which has employed Kodak to devise a security system, though all it will give in the way of details is that it ‘identifies bottles’. Hardy’s system in Australia involves the printing inks used on the labels of Eileen Hardy Shiraz being impregnated with DNA from 100-year-old vines at its McLaren Vale vineyard, to then be read with a scanner. (Does this mean that Hardy’s vines can be cloned from the label? That would be taking forgery a stage further.)

The success of such methods will depend on an alliance of producers, merchants and collectors. Collectors already have avenues open to them: Corney & Barrow offers a Pétrus Authentication Service, and Penfolds has its recorking clinics where bottles are checked. Collectors can always refer wines to the producer for authentication, though the Bordeaux first growths say that not many do. Ultimately, no laser-etching, microchip or DNA is proof against the gullibility of a collector who wants something badly enough not to ask questions.

The fight against illicit trade

Neil Coupland

According to Interpol, since the early 1990s, trade in counterfeits has grown at eight times the speed of legitimate trade. Twenty years ago, global commercial losses due to counterfeiting were estimated at $5 billion; today, they are around $500 billion.

Recent reports indicate that the scourge of fake wines is on the increase. Legitimate wine producers, brokers and retailers who take pride in the quality of their products and services see a growing climate of uncertainty eroding the trust they have built up over decades.

Authenticating the product and guaranteeing its provenance are essential ingredients in a trusting wine-trading relationship. Technologies exist to address these issues individually or as a whole, and they have seen rapid uptake in tobacco, spirits, pharmaceutical and luxury goods markets, for products that have also suffered from the attentions of illicit traders.

Broadly speaking, product security works on four levels: overt (visible to the naked eye), semi-covert (requiring simple devices to reveal features), covert (usually requiring electronic readers to identify hidden features and retrieve data) and forensic (often used to guarantee authenticity in a court of law).

These technologies can be applied to wine bottle seals or labels using overt and semi-covert features like dramatically colour-shifting inks which are very obvious to consumers. On tilting the bottle, the secure ink layer changes colour – this way both consumers and retailers can be confident their wines are legitimate.

For owners and brokers, solutions are available that offer covert (invisible) data markers only visible by specifically calibrated electronic devices. Secure Track and Trace solutions allow owners to secure and retrieve information such as date and time of production, name of producer, owner, intended market of sale, first and second customer etc. Indeed, as the product changes hands, new information can be added to the secure code as the data trail grows. So even old, recently authenticated vintages could be marked to show past and future ownership.

As well as marking the container, content markers that are generally regarded as safe (GRAS) can be added to the wine in the barrel or bottle, making it possible to detect fake or diluted content. Handheld detectors analyse the suspicious content against a genuine sample, comparing the two and providing results in less than five seconds.

Secure inks, markers, electronic readers, label distribution and database systems all represent potential weak points to any counterfeiter.

The fight against global illicit trade involves everyone: brand owners, international organisations and the public. Governments cannot do it alone.

Neil Coupland is a director of SICPA, which provides security ink technology to protect banknotes.

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