This is a longer version of an article also published in the Financial Times.
When the FBI arrest someone for wine fraud, you know this crime has moved into the mainstream. Rumours about the young, apparently Indonesian wine enthusiast apparently called Rudy Kurniawan (though he used several aliases) had been flying around the US wine community for some time, but in early March it still came as a shock when his house in southern California was raided, he was arrested and photographs of his counterfeiting equipment (including fat wads of labels of Châteaux Pétrus, Lafleur and Lafite in a desk drawer) were circulated.
Acker Merrall Condit, who have over the years sold vast quantities of Rudy's wine and seem to have been in a curious financial relationship with him (see The strange case of Acker & Rudy), issued a statement expressing their 'state of shock and disbelief on news that the government purportedly found and seized evidence of a wine counterfeiting operation in Mr Kurniawan's home'.
What, I wondered, would be the effects of the obvious prevalence of fake fine wine on how those who buy and sell it go about their business now? As I asked many of the most obvious players for their reactions, one related bombshell hit Bordeaux last week. A year from now, with the 2012 vintage, first growth Château Latour is to stop selling its wine en primeur. In future its luxurious wines will be sold only direct from the chateau, with increasing concerns about provenance being one key element in this decision.
Another very material development at this rarefied level is underway at Domaine de la Romanée-Conti in Burgundy. Their wines, or rather bottles purporting to be great vintages of their wines, were famously withdrawn at short notice just before Rudy's arrest from a London auction of wines supplied by Spectrum of southern California, new entrants into the wine scene, organised by new London wine trader Vanquish.
Domaine de la Romanée-Conti's wines are imported exclusively into the UK by wine merchant Corney & Barrow, whose managing director Adam Brett-Smith issued what might be called a statement of concern just before the auction. Corney are also the exclusive UK importer of Bordeaux's answer to DRC, Pétrus, and for some years now have been offering a unique, discreet authentication service for those who have doubts about a bottle of Pétrus. It is free but those taking advantage of it have to agree in advance that any contentious bottle will be confiscated. So far only a tiny minority of the 100 to 150 bottles inspected have proved fake but, says Brett-Smith, 'I suspect this will change'.
Very soon, Aubert de Villaine, co-owner of Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, expects to be able to offer a similar service. The details are not yet finalised but he is confident that in their own archives they have archetypes of all their bottlings from 1990 and also for many wines bottled between 1989 and 1953 when the current labels were introduced. But, de Villaine stresses, 'it is very clear that there are often different, sometimes very different, versions of the label for the same wine, so you can't take differences in colour or size of lettering as the only proof of whether a bottle is authentic or not'.
This should be music to the ears of Spectrum and Vanquish, since much of the criticism of the withdrawn lots of DRC was based on observations of such minutiae, but I still failed to persuade them to comment on what changes they were making to their business in the wake of widespread concerns about fake wines. Vanquish would not go on the written record and Jason Boland, president of Spectrum Wine Auctions, wrote to me, 'At this time we are going to pass on commenting.'
For consumers, or at least those consumers with enough cash to even consider the four- and sometimes five-digit outlay required to secure some of the latest release of DRC from one of its network of exclusive importers around the world, the best news is that de Villaine is at last instituting a proper traceability system – which should be relatively easy for DRC wines since all of them have individually numbered labels.
There is no such obvious numbering on Pétrus labels, for instance, but a less obvious verification system for each bottle was instituted in the mid 1990s and other top Bordeaux châteaux have followed suit.
The biggest London fine-wine trader, Farr Vintners, has a specific policy of never buying wine such as bordeaux and burgundy older than 1982, as do Bordeaux Index, whose MD Gary Boom maintains, 'if we cannot genuinely trace the bottle right the way back, we avoid it. Better safe than sorry etc. I am surprised that the auction scene sails on blissfully unaware.'
The real mystery of course is how some traders, merchants and auction houses seem to have almost endless supplies of the most sought-after combinations of producers and vintages to sell. As London fine-wine trader Patrick Wilkinson, who believes that buying wine in bond goes some way towards guaranteeing provenance because of the bondholder's records, puts it, 'it always seems surprising to us that we so seldom come across these wines and yet other less-than-blue-chip companies seem to come up with them time and time again'.
The expression 'blue chip' kept recurring in my discussions of this increasingly important issue, so I offer below my own very personal, and doubtless incomplete, list of those UK merchants and fine-wine traders from whom I would be happy to buy rarities. Although I respect Sotheby's wine department's exceptional scrupulousness, I have not included auction houses as I have reservations about how some lots of what they offer are sourced. As Simon Staples of Berry Bros says, 'I am constantly being harangued by Simon Berry about why haven't we got any old stuff on the list, but even with a vintage as recent as 1996, I wouldn't buy it unless I knew exactly where it had been.'
He for one would like to see a sort of logbook system put in place for smart bordeaux. 'We need a central database for any wine worth more than £1,000 a case – and even if your wine is cheaper than that, if you want to protect your brand, you could get in the system anyway. Organised by the Union des Grands Crus, it would be so easy to do.'
Linden Wilkie of The Fine Wine Experience in Hong Kong, where, I would argue, particular caution is required on the part of the buyer of mature fine wine, would like to see merchants and auction houses providing much more specific information in print about provenance. All are agreed that, as in the fine-art market, provenance is becoming more important by the day.
Paulo Pong of Hong Kong's Altaya Wines, which deals extensively in fine and rare wines, sometimes going back to the 19th century, claims that 'there are times when we pay to open bottles to taste before we purchase' and, like fine and rare specialist David Boobbyer of Reid Wines near Bristol in the UK, he specifically mentioned the custom, now sanctioned, of cutting the capsule to check the markings on the cork. He points out that fine wine's 'original wooden cases are like furniture – they have so many markings that give away provenance – also the bottles have to smell right; a bottle of old wine has a certain aroma'.
Altaya is highly respected in Hong Kong but is a mere 10 years old. Older wine merchants such as K&L of San Francisco, Paulson Rare Wine of southern Germany and the most established fine-wine merchants in the UK have the great advantage of being able to source most of their older wines from what they originally sold en primeur to their customers.
When Patrick Bernard set up Millésima, one of the few Bordeaux négociant-based retail operations, he made it a rule of faith not to buy from fellow merchants and to be able to claim that his stock had been in just two cellars: his own and that of the producer.
Below is an example of some reference, if extremely battered, samples of genuine Pétrus with a bottle third from the left which does not match in terms of both capsule colour and shoulder shape.
Buyer beware indeed.
My very personal list of UK merchants and traders from whom I would buy, or have bought, rareties:
Corney & Barrow
Justerini & Brooks