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Wine Scams: A Counterfeiter Confesses

F&W’s Lettie Teague—feeling glee, then guilt—explores the growing problem of wine fraud by attempting to dupe her friends with a fake bottle of 100-point Bordeaux.

Almost every woman I know (including myself) has knowingly purchased a fake designer handbag at one time or another. I know it’s wrong—that counterfeiting can cost legitimate companies a great deal of money, and that it can harm the unwitting purveyors of fakes as well. For example, eBay was recently ordered to pay $60 million to LVMH, owner of the Louis Vuitton and Christian Dior brands, for selling fakes on its site.

Of course, fancy handbags aren’t the only luxury goods considered worth copying these days; as the price of fine wine escalates, so, too, has the quantity of imposter bottles on the market. The number has reached into the hundreds of thousands, as in Tuscany, where Italian authorities found quite a few Brunello producers making their fancy wine with cheap, non-Brunello grapes. (The government’s fraud-fighting tactics are quintessentially Italian: They began training policemen as undercover sommeliers.)

Often, wine producers are the victims, not the perpetrators, of fraud. When 22 lots of Domaine Ponsot grand cru Burgundies with an estimated top value of $600,000 appeared at the Acker Merrall & Condit auction in New York City this past spring, proprietor Laurent Ponsot showed up in person to protest that the bottles were fakes. Indeed, some of them were from vintages in which Domaine Ponsot never made wine. The lots were withdrawn to much debate about how much responsibility the auction house bore. The consigning collector would not address questions about the wines’ provenance and, at the time of this writing, his source is still unknown.

The most publicized claim of fake wine (so far) involves billionaire American wine collector Bill Koch, who has filed four lawsuits alleging that he was sold fraudulent wine, including a 1784 Château Lafite reputedly owned by Thomas Jefferson. (Koch’s story, and his outrage, have inspired a book, The Billionaire’s Vinegar, that is soon to be turned into a movie.) Thanks to Koch, suddenly every wine collector I knew was thinking about—or at least talking about—fraud.

Wine fraud has been practiced since Roman times; in fact, the Romans themselves doctored wines with various substances, including lead, to make them taste sweeter—never mind that drinkers could have ended up dead. More recently, this gambit was nearly the undoing of the entire Austrian wine industry in the mid-1980s, when some unscrupulous producers employed diethylene glycol as a sweetener. (Sweet wines rate higher than dry ones in the Austrian classification system.) Unfortunately, the compound they chose is used to make antifreeze and can kill or cause kidney damage. The ruse was discovered before anyone died, and a chemist, among others, was eventually charged with the crime. But before the plot was uncovered, a treated wine won a gold medal in a European wine fair.

But all of this is amateurish stuff compared to the claims against Hardy Rodenstock, the German wine collector and concert promoter accused of faking Koch’s Jefferson bottle. Rodenstock (a.k.a. Meinhard Goerke) was famous for holding dinners with wines no one had ever tasted before, like the 1811 Château d’Yquem. When asked how he acquired such bottles, Rodenstock invariably replied that he couldn’t reveal their source or exact location of origin.

According to Rodenstock’s detractors, the “location of origin” may have been Rodenstock’s own basement. It was a remarkably simple operation for a man who supposedly fooled famous critics like Robert M. Parker, Jr., and experts like Michael Broadbent of the wine department of Christie’s London auction house. Rodenstock held numerous parties and large-scale affairs, serving wines many attendees (including the critics) had probably never tasted before.

While Rodenstock is said to be a talented taster (with a conveniently large cache of empty old Bordeaux bottles), I found it amazing that he might be able to fake wines like the 1811 Château d’Yquem. On the other hand, maybe faking very old wine is easy; after all, how many people really know what a 200-year-old Sauternes should taste like? It seemed to me that it would be a lot harder to counterfeit something modern and well-known, like a first-growth 1982 Bordeaux. Fooling collectors with a phony version of a wine they had probably tasted many times could be as big as anything Rodenstock reputedly tried to pull off.

And so I began to consider how I might make my own fake, and how easy or hard it might be to fool my own discerning friends. Was the creation of a convincing fake merely a matter of putting on a good show, fitting a bottle with the right label and maybe adding a bit of faux cellar dust? I ruminated in the same way that I imagined Rodenstock might have, considering the various possible candidates for my ruse: Lafite? Latour? Or perhaps 1982 Pétrus, supposedly the most-faked bottle in the world?

I decided on ’82 Château Mouton Rothschild, a Parker 100-point wine I’ve had several times. But I needed a real bottle in order to create a convincing replica.

The ’82 Mouton was easy to find, as there were some 25,000 cases produced. I bought a bottle for $1,200 at the Sonoma-based Rare Wine Co. But who would help me create a great fake? After all, unlike Rodenstock, I don’t even have a basement. If my experiment was going to succeed, I needed someone with talent, technical know-how and a slightly diabolical sense of humor as well. One name came to mind immediately: Chris Camarda.

Chris produces some of the best Merlots and Cabernets in Washington state under the Andrew Will label; he also makes a highly regarded Bordeaux-style blend, Sorella. “You want me to fake an ’82 Mouton?” Chris repeated when I called. “I can do that.” (Chris is pretty confident, too.) Could I be there to help? No problem, Chris said.

I had the real Mouton shipped directly to Chris. A week later, I flew out to Seattle, then boarded a ferry to Vashon Island, where Andrew Will is based. Chris was waiting, in dark glasses, in a black car at the far end of the pier. The combination lent our assignation an appropriately covert air, though the truth was a bit more prosaic. “I had to wait here or they’d have given me a ticket,” he said.

When we got to the winery, I saw that Chris had already retrieved several older Andrew Will wines from his cellar, mostly Cabernet Sauvignons, Merlots and Cabernet Francs—the main grapes in Mouton. He’d already decanted and tasted them all, as well as the ’82 Mouton. “I can do the body, but I’m not sure I can do the aroma,” he declared.

The Mouton’s austere structure seemed to me like the most difficult aspect to replicate, as well as its minerality, which Chris called its iodine-y quality. The nose would also be hard to capture, with its complex notes of sandalwood and dried cherries. The Mouton itself was a bit more faded than I remembered it from two years before, when I’d last had a bottle. That one had been much more vibrant. Was this one a fake? I wondered. What if I was making a fake from a fake? Would that question cross my mind whenever I tasted a great wine in the future? I thought of Bill Koch and his cellar of 40,000 bottles. Did he lie awake at night asking that same question 40,000 times?

Chris and I tried a few crude blending experiments with his Cabs and Merlots. He poured some ’95 Merlot into a glass and combined it with an equal amount of his ’95 Sorella, a blend of Cabernet and Merlot. Then we tried to match the Mouton with a mix of his wines from various vineyards and vintages. “I don’t think the ’94 Merlot adds anything,” Chris opined as we poured it into an improvised beaker. “But ’94 was a big, ripe year in Washington; ’95 was more austere,” he explained. “More Bordeaux-like,” I declared. “Exactly. It was our Mouton year,” said Chris.

We kept tasting and retasting. Our fraudulent endeavor was certainly taking a great deal of time; surely Rodenstock could have turned out 10 Pétruses in the time it was taking us to make one Mouton. In the end, Chris and I decided that the 1995 Sorella alone was as close to the ’82 Mouton as we could come. “I think this wine has a real Bordeaux quality,” Chris said. “In fact, I think you could dump the whole thing into the Mouton bottle.” And that was pretty much what we did.

We put the Sorella-Mouton in the real Mouton bottle, and Chris closed it with an Andrew Will cork. (Like Rodenstock, who whisked the corks away after opening his bottles, I’d make sure my friends weren’t around when I opened my fake.) As we prepared the wine, Chris mused on the 93-point Parker score he’d received for the Sorella. “I’m satisfied that my wine isn’t as good as the Mouton, but I think Parker should have given me a couple more points,” he complained. And yet, Chris reveled in his fraudster role. “I just know I’m going to get a call from Hardy Rodenstock when he reads this story. He’s going to say, ‘I’ve got some bottles signed by Andrew Jackson that I want you to see.’ ”

The second half of my plan, fooling my friends, turned out to be the much harder part—but not for the reasons I anticipated. I invited The Collector and his Bordeaux- loving friend, The CFO, to a special dinner. I also invited Glenn Vogt, partner and wine director of Crabtree’s Kittle House (a top restaurant in Chappaqua, New York, known for its wine list), as well as my friends Nikos Antonakeas and Roberta Morrell of Morrell & Company in New York. Everyone wanted to know what wines to bring. “Your favorite Bordeaux,” I replied.

Instead of inviting people to a restaurant, I’d asked my ex-husband, Alan, to host the dinner at his house. I thought it would keep the mood casual and ensure there would be no nosy sommelier around. Of course, I had to let Alan in on my plan. “You know this is as much about your acting ability as the wine,” he said. He meant to reassure me, but it made me more nervous instead.

The Collector was the first guest to arrive. I showed him the bottle of faux Mouton, which I’d opened and set down next to the real Mouton cork. “Nice!” he declared, clearly surprised that I had such an impressive wine. The Collector, of course, brought two wines just as good: a 1990 Trimbach Clos Ste.-Hune Riesling—the greatest Riesling from Alsace, if not the world—and the 1989 Château Clinet, another 100-point Bordeaux.

I opened a (real) bottle of 1989 Taittinger Comtes de Champagne to start. “I’ve never had this wine before,” The Collector observed. Then Glenn arrived, carrying two bottles of 1989 Château Haut-Brion, a white and a red. Both are 100-point wines; the latter is one of my favorite Bordeaux of all time. “I can’t believe you brought these wines,” I exclaimed, feeling a bit sick about my deception. Did my fellow fraudsters, I wondered, ever feel pangs of regret? “It’s just so great to see you again,” Glenn replied. He is such a warm, kind man, and The Collector is always so generous, I thought, reproaching myself for my duplicity. “It’s my pleasure,” said Glenn. Then he saw the bottles on the table. “But look at what you have! I haven’t had the ’82 Mouton in years.”

The CFO arrived looking polished as usual, carrying two world-class Bordeaux: the 1990 Château Beauséjour and the 1989 Château Clinet. Nikos and Roberta came in right behind him. They’d brought two fantastic Bordeaux as well, including the 2001 Vieux Château Certan. “I just really like the 2001 vintage,” Nikos explained. “Although you should have told us, ‘Bring your favorite 100-point wine,’ ” he added, looking at the array of bottles on the table.

“I think we should serve the Mouton last; maybe we should even decant it,” Glenn, the restaurant professional, suggested, recalling how he’d bought bottles of the wine on release for $37 each at a shop in a suburban mall. “I don’t think that will be necessary,” I hurriedly replied.

I thought about how Rodenstock was said to have forced his guests to swallow rather than spit the wines at his dinners, which got them incredibly drunk. By the time they got to the fanciest wine, their judgement was impaired and, indeed, they were probably lucky to still be sitting upright. I also thought about the special “Rodenstock” glass that Georg Riedel had created in a collaboration with Rodenstock many years before the big scandal broke. Maybe I should have tried to buy a few of those, too?

We started our tastings with the Clos Ste.-Hune. It was spectacular, as good a Riesling as I have ever had: intensely minerally, with a long, persistent finish. At 18 years of age, it was still remarkably young. Everyone crowded around for a glass, and though the Haut-Brion Blanc that followed was quite good, even it was overshadowed by the Clos Ste.-Hune.

“Let’s get to more 100-point wines,” said The Collector, who decided we should start with The CFO’s Beauséjour. “Parker made the reputation of this wine,” announced The Collector, holding the bottle. “I bought it accidentally,” The CFO confessed. The wine was wonderfully dense and rich. The CFO himself was looking forward to the Mouton, he said. He’d had it many times. “The Mouton will be superior to everything here, but it needs at least 20 more years,” he said definitively. I winced. “But how will the nose show?” The CFO continued. “The aroma, after all, is two-thirds of the wine.”

My friends debated the order of the remaining wines. Glenn thought the Mouton should be tasted last. “It will be the biggest,” he said. We decided the order would be the Clinet, then the Mouton and, last, the Haut-Brion. We quickly dispatched the Clinet: It was lovely, though rather angular after the lush Beauséjour. It was certainly a rapid tasting of some truly great wines, but everyone was eager to get to the Mouton—me most of all.

Nikos tasted it first. “I like the Clinet more than the Mouton. The Mouton is dumb.” The Collector disagreed. “I think the Mouton is a step up from anything we’ve tasted, especially in the nose.” Roberta shook her head: “I know Mouton. I like Mouton. But I don’t like this wine.” Glenn was more generous (he’s naturally that kind of guy): “I like it. I think it just needs more time.” But The CFO, the man who’d had ’82 Mouton more times than anyone else present, declared definitively, “I think it’s right up there with the Moutons I’ve had before.” No one said a word about it possibly being a fake.

But there was one more wine to taste: the 1989 red Haut-Brion, the legendary 100-point wine. Would it show up the Mouton for the fraud that it was? I tasted it. The wine had all the characteristic deep, earthy minerality of the bottles I’d tasted and loved in the past. The finish was penetrating and long; it was a truly great wine. “This is my wine of the night,” declared Nikos. Holding up his glass, he added, “My comment on the Mouton is: Can I have more Haut-Brion?”

The CFO and The Collector vehemently disagreed. The CFO placed my Mouton ahead of the Haut-Brion and thought it was a very good Mouton. The Collector went one better: “I think the Mouton is the wine of the night,” he declared. Wine of the night? This was going along almost too well.

I met Alan in the kitchen when it was time for the last course (banana cream pie, his 100-point dessert). “When are you going to tell them?” Alan asked. “I guess I’d better do it now,” I replied, feeling a rush of dread as I headed back to the dining room.

“I have a confession to make,” I began. The CFO looked up at me. As a man in charge of corporate finance, he’d probably heard that line many times before. “It’s about the ’82 Mouton.” No one said anything. This was going to be hard. “It’s not really a Mouton. It’s a fake.”

The Collector guffawed. “You have got to be kidding!” He didn’t seem angry—or at least, not entirely. Glenn appeared amused, and Nikos seemed to be quite smug. He had known it didn’t taste like Mouton, he said. But The CFO looked decidedly unhappy. He was a man who knew Mouton, after all. I told them the whole story: How I’d bought a real bottle, sent it to Seattle and then created a replica with Chris. “I always thought Sorella was a very good wine, and I’ve always admired Chris Camarda,” Glenn said. “But I’m afraid of fraud; it’s why I don’t like to buy wine at auction.” The CFO said nothing but continued to look very cross. Then The Collector, to my amazement, shook his head. “It’s still my wine of the night,” he said.

In the weeks that followed, I continued to feel guilty about deceiving my friends. They had been so generous and brought such extraordinary wines for all of us to share, and I’d repaid their generosity with a lie. And yet all of them, save for The CFO, seemed to take being taken in stride. Did they simply not care about fraud? Or did they believe that a deception like this could never (really) happen to them (again)?

I think that’s how most people feel about fraud; like death, it always happens to someone else. Consider that customers at wine merchant Farr Vintners in London, when given a choice between buying Bordeaux from an unnamed “reputable source” or paying a slight premium to buy the wine shipped directly from the château (thus assuring its provenance), almost always opt for the former. Indeed, Peter Newton, a Farr salesman, said that he recommended the cheaper wine. His customers, he explained, “aren’t too fussed” about provenance, though “they do talk about it from time to time.”

And maybe talk is all that will happen in response to wine fraud— at least for now. Or until Bill Koch wins his potential millions in court. In the meantime, I’ve been trying to get The CFO on the phone—he won’t take my calls—and I have promised The Collector that I will never, ever serve him another fake wine. He said that maybe, just maybe, he’d trust me again.

Published October 2008
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