Wine Authentication is an art, not a science. Wine cannot be authenticated by taste, as has been well proven by the success and magnitude of the recent Kurniawan and even Rodenstock counterfeiting frauds. To date, there are no scientific tests that we know of that are accurate enough to tell that the liquid inside a bottle is definitively from a particular plot of land, instead of the one five meters away, or that it is from a specific vintage. Pre- and post-nuclear is as close as we can get, and that is not useful for most of us, especially in cases when a bottle needs authenticating. Therefore, we have to use the physical attributes of the packaging and the visual characteristics of the liquid inside.
In order to be an effective wine authenticator, one must first have a strong base of knowledge about wine. We strongly suggest people who are interested in being effective authenticators seek out wine education from organizations such as the Wine & Spirits Education Trust*, French Wine Scholar*, the Society of Wine Educators* – all of which are available globally. These organizations offer courses that cover the history and relevant laws that are required basic knowledge to authenticate wine. This includes people who have been in the industry “for a long time” and think they have absorbed expertise, which many have not and are doing harm to the industry with their innocent ignorance. It is astounding that so many so-called and self-proclaimed “experts” have allowed such basic flaws as Appellation Contrôlée on labels decades before the AC system was law, or misspelling of obvious words such as Château, to pass through them in the vetting process. Then again, some were likely paid to simply justify these counterfeit wines.
Once basic wine knowledge is gained and can be applied, a lot of common sense must be employed to be an effective authenticator. Taking a moment to step back and ask frequently throughout the inspection process, “does this make sense?” will save an authenticator a lot of time. All too often logic is all that is/was needed to know that many of the counterfeits in the marketplace today, are in fact counterfeit. On to the nuts and bolts.
In general we can break down the work of fine and rare wine counterfeiters into three categories. Counterfeiters:
Unicorns are what we call wines and formats that were never made by the alleged producers.
People successfully refill empty bottles and pass them off as authentic in many different settings. The White Club in Europe and South Africa were recently discovered to be charging their members tens of thousands of euros to join the club and then again to attend dinners, at which they were being served the same bottles over and over, and sometimes over again. Unfortunately, if a bottle is opened outside of the view of the guests, as these shifty hosts figured out, a cork can be presented and the bottle can be used many times. Sealed bottles that have been refilled can be tough to authenticate as the labels and glass are correct. More information about this can be found in the Refill section.
Recreating bottles is the largest section of fine and rare wine counterfeiting that those of us in the business of detecting and pulling these bottles out of the market have to deal with. When counterfeiters recreate bottles they are taking a number of different raw materials and fabricating them in an effort to recreate an authentic looking bottle. This can be highly labor-intensive, as we have seen from the Kurniawan evidence. But a careful and knowledgeable authenticator should be able to find the errors the counterfeiters have made in creating and assembling all of these pieces together on a bottle.
In order to properly authenticate a bottle, all the different pieces must be inspected separately, and together, as they relate to each other. The following is a list of the different pieces of the bottle, and areas of possible adulteration, authenticators must look for in the authentication process (we delve deeper into each of these categories as a unique topic on the website).
Capsules can be very difficult to get correct as reapplication for reuse is almost always evident. They must be from the proper era, made of the correct materials, and have the correct art and markings.
Labels are an important area that require much attention in the authentication process. Labels often expose counterfeiting practices. The size of the labels must be accurate for the period of time, with appropriate aging characteristics, and different labels on a bottle must be consistent with each other and the rest of the label.
Paper – Paper and print method of labels are often incorrect on counterfeits. Weight, texture, watermarks, and size must all be correct for the era and in accordance with production standards.
Ink & Font – Correct inks are difficult, and often cost ineffective to replicate. Inks with metallic character are apparent and should be looked for in authenticating bottles. Over time, counterfeiter templates slip, causing the font to appear wavy and spaced inappropriately. And sometimes the templates are just wrong and an entire line is simply presented in an incorrect font.
Print Methods – Having an expensive and elaborate print method, with high-quality ink on high-quality paper, is the single best way to ensure a brand is not counterfeited. Making it economically unfeasible to successfully counterfeit a bottle is the best defense a producer can use. It is considerably better than any technology that we have seen to date! Using magnification to inspect print methods is a vital step in the process of authentication.
Information – Some of the more hilarious counterfeits that we have come across are easily identified simply because of the way the information is presented, or because of necessary information that is missing. In order to understand counterfeit wine, one must understand wine, and that means that one must know the laws, the regulations, and the changes in laws and regulations as they have occurred through time regarding wine. Again, we stress that having a solid foundation of wine knowledge is the single best tool in a wine authenticator’s arsenal. It is necessary to know about what information should, and should not, be on different labels in different markets and in different time periods. Knowledge of a producer’s history and changes to company structures is also required.
Vintage tags can too easily be swapped out with better vintages, greatly increasing the value of a bottle. If the label is authentic, this can be very hard to authenticate. In inspecting the bottle, it is important to inspect to assure the vintage or neck tag paper, print method, and alleged age and condition match that of the main label. All labels must be consistent with each other, and with the production standards of the era of alleged production.
These extra labels are all too often applied as what I call “noise.” They serve as a distraction so that all the other things that are wrong with the counterfeit bottle are ignored. They need to be correct for the era, they need to belong there (no Etablissement Nicolas Decante back label on a bottle without a Nicolas stamp on the main label!), and if they are allegedly old, they should not be stickers. Again, knowledge of the laws and regulations in your market, and in the market of production, is key to understanding what should and should not be on a bottle. If the wines were allegedly imported into the USA after 1996, they should have governmental health warning labels, for example.
Paper oxidizes with time and browns. If possible, go look at old books and note the oxidized edges of the pages. With time, all paper will oxidize and weaken, so a 30-, 40-, or 70-year-old bottle should have a label with visible oxidation and a frailty of the paper that is consistent with the age of the bottle. In time, we have seen a vast array of false aging techniques from applications of tea, tobacco, and dirt to intentional nicks and tears in an effort to mimic age. Rudy Kurniawan even baked his labels in the oven to mimic oxidation and age. A trained authenticator can quickly tell the difference between authentic oxidation, bin-soiling staining, and wear, and that which has been applied in an effort to mimic age and cellaring.
Methods of adhesion onto bottles has changed over time. Until the 1970s many burgundy producers affixed their labels with milk! Glue has also changed greatly over the years. Glue can be tricky as it is not often the most reliable characteristic to note when authenticating. Producers have changed application and types of glues used in production over time, and many vendors reapply loose labels. That being said, many counterfeit bottles are exposed because of glue.
The history of glass is paramount to the history of the global wine trade. Understanding the history, production methods, and type of glass used by individual producers is vital to being a capable authenticator.
Special bottlings are counterfeiters, shady vendors, and apologists favorite justification to be able to make up as many excuses as they can for all the production anomalies on a particular bottle. Special bottlings do not excuse counterfeits. If the fact of the matter is that the bottling is so special that only you and the producer know about it – Congratulations! You have a very special bottle. However, your bottle is no longer commercially viable. If you know a secret and nobody else can corroborate your secret, than the secret dies with you. So enjoy your bottle, enjoy your secret, but do not try to sell that secret bottle on the open market and expect other people to buy into your story. All too often, special bottlings, secret bottlings, family bottlings, Nicolas bottling, Mahler Besse bottlings, Caves Dessilly bottlings, and all the other special bottlings they can come up with, are simply used as a mask to hide completely counterfeit bottles. If the bottles are authentic, a capable authenticator can determine that through all the hoopla.
Consistency is the first thing we look for and the last thing we look for when inspecting a bottle of wine for authenticity. When first looking at a bottle of wine, we take a few moments to simply look at it, to take it in, and to ask ourselves, “Does this make sense?” Do all the pieces make sense for the alleged era of production? Do they match the legal requirements of the era of production? Do they match the production standards of the alleged producer? Was this bottle even made? Then we move forward through all the other elements of the bottle to make sure they are consistent in and of themselves with era, production, and regulations, as well as with each other in terms of condition and age. Sounds silly, and redundant, but this is how basic it can be to tell real from counterfeit.
Then there are the unicorns. These are often the howlers of the authenticator’s day. Unicorns are what we call wines that were never made by the producers. Perhaps they are bottlings of vineyards not produced in a certain vintage, or until a particular year, or in formats that were not made at the time of production. Some of my favorite examples of unicorns include large format 1945 Domaine de la Romanee Conti, Romanee Conti; 6 and 4.5 litre bottles of 1947 Lafleur; 1921 Petrus;and, of course, the now-infamous Domaine Ponsot, Clos St. Denis produced prior to 1982. Shady vendors and apologists love to use special bottlings to explain away these impossible bottles. But facts are facts, and shady vendors and apologists are flat-out wrong.
This is a very short introduction to all of the areas that we will discuss in greater detail. Keep in mind that authentication is an art, not a science, and different people have different opinions about it. Different people look at different aspects more heavily than others. The one thing that our team at WineFraud.com can consistently agree on is that the only method of authentication that is completely irrelevant and completely untrustworthy is taste. No one can taste for authenticity; therefore, we must look at all of these forensic physical details to determine the authenticity of bottles.
*Napa Valley Wine Academy, has campuses in Napa Valley, Santa Barbara, Los Angeles and Tampa Florida. We highly recommend school and thus it is the preferred location for education for these three courses.