Thursday, January 31, 2013

Oenophobia: The Dread of Fake Wine

Wine display at Trader Joe’s, Santa Barbara, California

Hardy Rodenstock!  Rudy Kurniawan!

These are names that strike terror into the heart of any would-be oenosophe.

Just when I was about to start palate research on Franzia wines and Trader Joe’s Charles Shaw brand (“Two-Buck-Chuck”), with a view to becoming the world’s only anosmic wine connois-seur, I find out the wine market is rife with fakes!

We spend big bucks for authenticity these days, but everything from Gucci shoes to President Obama’s birth certificate turns out to be suspect.

Wine, of course, is no exception. Global demand for the stuff is on the rise, with China fueling the boom. By many accounts, up to five percent of vintage wines sold at auction or on the secondary market are fake. The older and rarer the bottle, the greater the risk, especially for wines from the 18th century or in large formats (big bottles) from before World War II.

But who in the world is Hardy Rodenstock?

He’s a flamboyant German music promoter turned wine collector who gained notoriety back in the 1980s for his “discovery” of a cache of 1787 Château Lafite (Rodenstock won’t say how many bottles he found) that supposedly belonged to Thomas Jefferson, walled up in a Paris basement.

Bottle of "1787 Château Lafite" – courtesy, Thomas 
Jefferson (?)
At a 1985 Christie’s auction, publisher Christopher Forbes paid $156,450 for one of the Jefferson bottles, a record price at the time for a single bottle of wine.

About three years later, billionaire William Koch bought four Jefferson bottles for a total of $500,000 – and then determined that the etching on them, "Th. J.," had been done with a modern power tool.  As a result, Rodenstock’s (seemingly bottomless) trove of antique Lafite was widely dismissed as bogus.

In the wake of the Lafite scandal, Mr. Rodenstock, who’d been involved in the pro-motion and sale of other counterfeit wines, became embroiled in image-tarnishing lawsuits and so fell from grace (though he may still be doing business in China via his wine merchant godson).

Benjamin Wallace, in Billionaire’s Vinegar, recounts Rodenstock’s antics and their aftermath in fascinating detail.

Yet just when wine geeks thought the Rodenstock affair had put them wise to oeno-fakery, along came Rudy Kurniawan. In March, 2012, the celebrated Los Angeles-area entrepreneur and expert on fraudulent wines was arrested for, yup, wine fraud – the illicit sale of California Cabernet and Pinot Noir re-labeled as more expensive wines such as Domaine de la Romanée-Conti. Kurniawan had also consigned for auction several lots of Clos St. Denis from Domaine Ponsot that purportedly came from vintages predating any actual production of Clos St. Denis.

Reprehensible as it all seems, its not hard to imagine worse.

What if Châteaux Pétrus, say, were shown to be fermented of faux fruit – sultana seedless table grapes sucrose-fortified and re-complected with gentian violet? What if Domaine de la Romanée-Conti were concocted from outdated Welch’s grape concentrate infused with neutral grain spirits and teinture de Pinot Noir? Or if Château d Yquem Ygrec were nothing more than Wild Harvest organic white grape juice pollinated with Fleischmann’s RapidRise yeast and left in the woodshed for a week or two?

Worst of all might be the substitution of bogus wine for the Eucharist. Could you count on another Miracle at Cana? Or would the soul sour and shrivel, like Cabernet Franc for eiswein (ice wine) forsaken on wintry vine – a kind of spiritual transfusion reaction?

Think this sounds outlandish? Think again. It turns out illegal production and sale of artificial wine based solely on additives and water is well-known.  During the 17th and 18th centuries, "wine doctors" made wines from obscure substances and various chemicals. Joseph Addison wrote of a "fraternity of chymical operators (sic)" who used apples to make Champagne and sloe to make Bordeaux and then sold these wines fraudulently.

And its not just a few bad apples. Wine fraud perpetrated by well-established vintners has been a problem since Roman times.

Last year, French prosecutors announced that from 2006 to 2008, Maison Laboure-Roi may have blended half a million bottles of premium Burgundy wine worth $3.4 million with wines from lesser appellations (beyond the 15 percent allowed by law) to produce 1.5 million bottles of ostensibly high end beverage. Another 1.1 million bottles were allegedly labeled with false vintages.

In 2010, a dozen French wine producers and traders were found guilty of having supplied E & J Gallo with 18 million bottles of mislabeled Pinot Noir (mostly Merlot and Syrah) that Gallo had bought for its Red Bicyclette Pinot Noir brand. Gallo subsequently closed out the Red Bicyclette label.

Of late, fraudulent re-labeling of wine bottles has become virtually epidemic, especially in Asia. So has plonkauftanken, the refilling of empty expensive old wine bottles with cheap new wine (plonk) to be sold illicitly under the original label. Thus, there’s presently more Château Lafite-Rothschild 1982 in China than was ever produced in France! One Chinese dealer offers the equivalent of over $400 for empty vintage Lafite bottles in top condition. His firm collects empties from bars and restaurants around Shanghai and Beijing.

“The bottles need to be in the best condition possible. It is very important. And I only want genuine bottles, no fakes,” declared Shanghai dealer, Mr. Ye, in a candid – if not tongue-in-cheek – display of backhanded integrity.

There's nothing like the genuine article to fool the customer!

So what’s a jackleg dilettante like myself to do in the face of such chicanery? How many a smirking La Gioconda could be lurking out there, and how would you tell real ones from the fakes?

One idea might be to obtain training at a web-based institute like Wine Campus ™ (talk about your party schools!), a private wine college where you can earn Brevets, Higher Brevets, and Honors Brevets in wine education. Perhaps in the process you’d discover the virtues of  packaging wine in Tetra-Paks instead of bottles. Or maybe you’d master iWine eTasting with the electronic tongue invented by scientists at the Barcelona Institute of Microelectronics that can 'taste' grape varieties and wine vintages.

What you likely wouldn’t learn, though, is how to distinguish amongst wines using your own taste buds.

Frédéric Brochet, a researcher from Bordeaux, has shown why. He asked 54 “experts” to evaluate two glasses of wine. The glasses were actually the same white wine, but one glass had been tinted red with food coloring. Interestingly, the experts described the tinted wine in language typically reserved for reds. One expert praised its “jamminess,” while another enjoyed its “crushed red fruit.” Not a single evaluator recognized it as a cross-dressed white.

“The truth is that you cannot define taste objectively,” said Brochet.  “[Only] about two or three percent of people detect the white wine flavor, but invariably they have little experience of wine culture. Connoisseurs tend to fail to do so. The more training they have, the more mistakes they make because they are influenced by the color of the wine.”

Brochet also pointed out that the molecule that gives red wine the taste of blackcurrants, red currants or raspberries is the same one that gives white wine “notes” of apricot or peach. Again, connoisseurs may change their description of taste or smell based solely on color.

In another experiment, Brochet asked 57 experts to sample the same average bottle of Bordeaux wine on two separate occasions. On the first occasion, the wine was labeled as a high-prestige grand cru; on the second, as a cheap vin de table. When the experts thought they were drinking the grand cru, they described it as agreeable, woody, complex, balanced and rounded. When they thought it was a vin de table, they said it was weak, short, light, flat, faulty and with a sting. Seventy percent said the wine was good when they thought it was expensive, but only 21 percent when they believed it was cheap.

“This is why wine frauds are virtually never detected on taste alone, but because someone tips off the police who [then] look at the paperwork,” Brochet concludes.

Another way of looking at these results, as pointed out by Antonio Rangel who does wine research at the California Institute of Technology, is that “We can change how wine tastes without changing the wine….!”

Snake Bite Medicine, circa 2013
Apparently so, but hasn’t Madison Avenue recognized this all along – been aware that when it comes to intoxicating beverages, enjoyment is about more than just drinking them?

"Guys made millions and billions and they lose their heads [over] wine," says Kasey Carpenter who writes the investment column, the Wine Mogul (investing in wine and wine futures is big business now).

New York sommeliers wryly refer to big-spending oenophiles like Kasey Carpenter’s as whales, players, ballers, a deep ocean, or a live one.  A point grabber, point or label chaser, Parker guy, or vintage chart holder is a diner who selects wine based on scores from wine magazines, experts or charts. An iParker is someone who checks critics’ scores on his smart phone.

I must confess that I am not now, nor have I ever been, one of  the afore-mentioned types. Mostly I stick to my jug of Snake Bite Medicine ‘cause I know what’s in there, and I don’t have to bother with tasting flights (except after half the jug), harmonious fusion, expressiveness, complexity, connectedness, or terroir – features of wine that so engross les experts.

Besides, Snake Bite is “aged in the woods,” not some musty old cellar.

Just the same, pass the Franzia – maybe I'll still go for “expert” and start out with box wine.  Some stuff’s so basic no one could fake it. Even if it were bogus, I might be too busy drinking the evidence to care.

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