Long, long ago wine fraud started the day wine became a commodity.
At first wine was the privilege of Persian kings and courtesans who liked the tipsiness the low-alcohol content provided. Once the secrets of winemaking reached the outside world and wine became commodity fraudulent merchants started taking advantage of the ignorance of the consuming public. In many regions and markets fraudulent wine merchants still ply their trade.
Wine is relatively easy to fake and fraudsters have been selling wine since time immemorial.
The best way to defend yourself is to learn how to taste, evaluate, keep meticulous records, taste as many wines as you can, wine web sites written and maintained by wine writers and read independent trade magazines.
If you are a member of a wine club, you will have opportunities to taste first growth Bordeaux (Château lafite, Chateau Margaux, Chateau Haut Brion, Chateau Latour and Chateau Mouton Rothschild just to name a few). Grange Hermitage, Romanee-Conti, Montrachet Marquis de Laguiche, Tignanello, Sassicaia, Brunello di Montalcino, Cote Rotie Brune or Cote Rotie Blonde, Bernkasteler Doctor, Vega Sicilia Unico, just to name a few.
The world is awash with moneyed consumers, business people out to impress their business associates who know little about taste, but a lot about expensive wines and their best vintages.
Fraudsters have an easy time passing off fakes of world-famous wines like con artists did with 1982 Chateau Lafite in 2002 in China.
Hong Kong is a paradise for merchants selling fake wines. Rich business people are gullible in matters of wine, but awash in funds. The police in this city of six million discovered over 12,000 bottles of Mouton Cadet in 1995 in a supermarket. While Mouton Cadet is not an expensive wine, the profit margin of a cache of 12,000 bottles is significant!
Again, the Hong Kong fraud squad discovered a 1982 Chateau Petrus for sale at $ 4,000.00, less than half its market value.
It is aid that some 65 percent of all Scotch whisky in Taiwan originates in obscure “fake shops”, a serious loss to distillers in Scotland. Many a Scotch bottle sold in the Middle East is nothing more than masterfully brewed teas blended with alcohol.
The French government has an extensive anti-fraud agency to prevent and often investigate dubious merchandise. The wine anti-fraud squad employs 45 inspectors.
In 2002 Jacques Hemmer, a Bordeaux negociant, was caught blending cheap wines from southern France into much more expensive Bordeaux. The quantity involved was approximately 4000 hectolitres, a small amount, considering the fact that total production in Bordeaux exceeds seven million hectolitres. Regardless, he was convicted, served a year-and-a-half jail sentence, and had to pay one million Euros in fines.
Then a disgruntled employee of Chateau Giscours, classified in 1855 as one of the 65 outstanding properties of Bordeaux, revealed that the manager of the chateau blended lesser vintages of the property into more valuable ones (1998).
Henri Cruse, a reputable wine shipper for centuries, was caught in 1973 blending cheap Rioja wine into Bordeaux. The company was convicted, had to pay $ eight million in fines, and ultimately declared bankruptcy. Today the company is owned by an English brewer. His five daughters own and operate small chateaux.
Many Burgundy shippers have been caught blending inexpensive Cotes du Rhone wine into weak, anaemic looking red Burgundies and sell them at exorbitant prices to unsuspecting importers in many countries including third world countries where the populations have next to no knowledge about the taste and texture of fine red Burgundy wines.
Burgundy has 115 registered wine merchants, who bottle 96 appellations and 562 classified single vineyards. When buying Burgundy wines, the reputation of the shipper must be considered very carefully. Buying Burgundy in futures and in the cask is an adventure only seasoned professionals should dare, and only if they know enough about the shipper and the wines of that particular region.
The audacity of Burgundy shipper Bernard Grivelet tops it all; he bottled inferior quality French wine from somewhere else in magnum and double magnum bottles and sold them as Burgundy in 2001. An expert reported it and Grivelet was convicted.
The damage inflicted upon the reputation of Burgundy is profound, and buyers should always be aware of such schemes.
In 1985, Austrian wine scandal caused damage in the millions of dollars. A winemaker added ethylene glycol to his wine to upgrade it from regular to table wine. The ensuing world wide adverse publicity cost the Austrian wine industry untold millions in export losses.
However, one had to consume 28 bottles of wine per day for at least two weeks for the ethylene glycol to have an adverse effect.
Regardless, the damage caused was substantial. The Austrian government promulgated the most severe wine laws to prevent the repetition of such a scandal.
A fraudulent Italian winemaker blended methanol (wood alcohol) in his low-alcohol wine in 1986; and caused the death of 23 consumers.
Hard to believe, but it is true that in 2000 the Italian fraud squad uncovered one million bottles of fake Chianti!
As long as there are greedy winemakers and merchants, wine fraud will occur. The best protection against such fraud is to develop a good understanding of wine profiles, read labels and cork imprints carefully, visit wineries, and select your sources with due diligence.
Reputable wineries use embossed bottles, tamper proof labels, branded corks (screw capped bottles exempt!) and some even go as far as soaking the label into the wine as a proof that the wine in the bottle is the same as on the label. Human ingenuity knows no bounds and a sharp mind will invent another way to defraud unsuspecting consumers.
In Russia, annually 22,000 people die from fake vodka blended with wood alcohol and 30,000 from alcohol related diseases.
Luckily, in Ontario, the Liquor Control Board operates a well-equipped and staffed laboratory where wine shipments are analysed for a number of harmful components.
Article contributed by Hrayr Berberoglu, a Professor Emeritus of Hospitality and Tourism Management specializing in Food and Beverage. Books by H. Berberoglu