How to be a wine faker


The wine trade would dearly love the whole issue of fake wine to disappear. I keep thinking of Aubert de Villaine, for example, who would like to spend his time overseeing the production of wine at the world-famous Domaine de la Romanée-Conti and on his home farm in Bouzeron. Instead, he must often find himself completely distracted by having to comment on questionable bottles of DRC being offered for a fortune around the world, and having to co-operate with the police in the long-running investigation of an Italian-based forgery operation. Last week the local paper in Burgundy published this report that police apprehended in a Meursault hotel a Russian living in Milan suspected of involvement with faking DRC wines.

Only last month the Antique Wine Company in London was accused of selling fake 18th and 19th century Bordeaux to an Atlanta collector – since which time Stephen Williams of AWC has been in PR overdrive.

Meanwhile, the notorious convicted wine counterfeiter Rudy Kurniawan, awaiting sentence in custody in New York, has had his lawyers plead that he really shouldn't be made to suffer any more – especially since wine fraud is so rife and anyway he only cheated the very rich.

And then last Friday, a couple of Danish journalists who have been working on the story for some months, finally published their 13-page exposé in Denmark's Gastro magazine of a fellow countryman now called René Dehn who, they claim, has been recycling and refilling bottles of ancient vintages to be served to members of his extremely expensive wine society, The White Club. As usual, this story of well-heeled connoisseurs being ripped off has been greeted with much enthusiasm by general readers.

I was approached and was initially taken in by Dehn. My colleagues John Stimpfig and Neal Martin were too. Dehn invited me to what seems to have been his first really ambitious event, a black-tie affair just outside Copenhagen in September 2009. Attracted by the line-up of rarities and encouraged by the fact that the respected Finnish editor of Fine magazine Pekka Nuikki seemed to know him (though see Nuikki's comments below), I flew myself to taste these wines and reported on them on these pages. Our sommelier for the evening was Scandinavia's widely regarded and most famous, Christian Aarø Mortensen, and I'm pretty confident that all, or at least almost all, of the wines tasted that night were exactly what they should have been. So far so good.

Pekka and I were invited for brunch at the modern flat Dehn shared with his then partner and wine hostess the morning after the tasting. I remember thinking that this pair didn't strike me as winos through and through but thought no more about it until, some time later, they invited me to what looked like a similar event, also with Pekka, in Bern. By this time they were living in Switzerland. (More recently Dehn has taken up with someone else and has moved to South Africa, where he launched himself and his wine club with some success initially).

In Bern there seemed to be more nationalities of guests involved, but the (rather dishevelled) presence of John Kapon of Acker Merrall, through whom so many of Rudy's bottles were sold, did nothing to bolster my confidence. This was the time when – perhaps with unconscious prescience if such a thing is possible – I failed to save my tasting notes on my laptop and had to depend on Dehn's own. The rarest wines were served before the dinner in Dehn's hotel suite with the pouring taking place in a different room from the serving, even though the ancient bottles themselves were much in evidence. I was by no means convinced by all the wines at this event and should have smelt a very strong rat at that point, but was reassured by the fact that Dehn claimed now to be an investor in Fine, the Scandinavian fine-wine specialist magazine.

However, Pekka Nuikki confirmed today that Dehn is not an investor and never has been. Nuikki also explained further that 'René Dehn and his partner were both members of our FINE Club in 2009-2010. And, unfortunately, I have heard that they have used that membership to give the wrong impression about the way they have been involved with Fine. Because of that, in 2010 I sent them a written warning not to do so. I have met René only twice at his tastings, exactly the same two events to which Jancis was invited. I also thought the bottles at the first event in 2009 were all real, but at the second tasting in Bern, the wines did not feel right and after the tasting I told Jancis of my serious doubts about the authenticity of the wines and told her that we would not publish our notes, neither did she. That Bern event in 2010 was the last time I saw René Dehn, or Rehne Thomsen, which was his name then.'

The third and last time I encountered Dehn was at a wine dinner in a wine-minded restaurant in Hong Kong, coinciding – pure coincidence – with what might be called Pancho's last stand, where there was a curious mixture of people who had bought highly priced tickets for the event and fine-wine brokers. Dehn by this point must have thought I was a real mug because it was quite clear that many of these wines were not at all as they should be. It was all decidedly embarrassing. I hate confrontation so dashed off a thank-you email the next morning (I did not pay for my ticket to the dinner) and resolved to take down any mention of Dehn and his events from this site and to have no more to do with him.

Interestingly, the next morning a man I didn't recognise drew me aside at Pancho Campo's wine event to enquire about the authenticity of the wines that had been served by Dehn the previous evening. I still don't know who he was but had the impression he had something to do with Fine magazine.  

(Incidentally, I spent quite a time with a high-profile sommelier during my last visit to Hong Kong in March and he told me that they deliberately sign the labels of valuable wines once the bottles are opened to prevent the bottles being refilled.)

As someone who, along with le tout Bordeaux, was initially taken in by Hardy Rodenstock, I can easily see how someone establishes their credentials before gradually increasing the proportion of fake wines they serve. This seems to be the standard procedure and I am certainly extremely circumspect nowadays. I'm sad that I have to be.