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Fake wines take off

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Great opinion piece in yesterday’s Times on counterfeiting expensive wines. Seems there’s a burgeoning market on eBay for empty bottles of luxury wines, like 1982 Lafite. The Times’ writer, Robin Goldstein, cites Günter Schamel, an Italian professor of (I think) economics, who wrote a paper called “Forensic Economics: Some Evidence for New Wine to be sold in Old Bottles.” (The paper was presented to the American Association of Wine Economists.)

Schamel wrote: “Online auctions [such as eBay]…may also facilitate the exchange of goods that subsequently can be used in fraudulent transactions.” He studied wine bottle sales on eBay for 6 months and concluded that “the incidence of sale and the price of an empty bottle” are based mostly on “the price a full and presumably authentic bottle could potentially fetch in the marketplace.” In other words, the more expensive the original, filled wine bottle would sell for, the higher the price, and the faster the empty one will sell on eBay. Which led Schamel to suspect that the reason someone would be willing to pay 100 Euros for an empty bottle of ‘82 Lafite is because “it is worth a lot more once it is filled-up again.” [Schamel’s abstract is available as a PDF link in Goldstein’s article.]

Filled up with what? This is where Goldstein carries the speculation a bit further. He argues, convincingly, that two conditions, both of which are easily fulfilled, could result in a thriving market for counterfeit wines. Having obtained an impressive empty bottle, you would need, first, “a separate black market for counterfeit corks” (which common sense suggests must exist, or be easily developed), and “regions where there’s a lot of demand for prestige bottles but relatively little wine tradition or wine education; China and Russia come to mind.” It might (or might not) be possible for discerning wine collectors in London or New York to determine that an ‘82 “Lafite” is nothing of the kind, but what about that “table full of businessmen in Hong Kong” whom Goldstein saw mixing their 1970 Haut-Brion with Coca Cola? “[C]ustomers in such situations would be easily duped,” and the restaurateur who sold them their wine might be less than scrupulous, if in fact he knew the wine was fake.

Needless to say, the possibility of widespread fraud, especially in this Age of the Internet when crooks around the world are perfecting their scams, has not gone unnoticed by the legitimate wine industry. In fact, just a few days ago a team of scientists, led by a researcher from the University of Burgogne, in Dijon, announced a new system “to help fight trade in fake vintage wines,” according to Decanter, which reported the story. The technique uses a mass spectrometer to analyze the thousands of compounds in wine and determine precisely where it came from.

I don’t think the world of collectible wine will ever be free from counterfeiting. For that to happen, the entire notion of “collectible” would have to go away, and that won’t happen; as we’re seeing, with the rise of wealth in developing nations, just the opposite is occurring. A new class of millionaires is vying to own that special bottle they then can mix with Coca Cola.

I guess you get what you pay for.

  1. People receive pleasure in so many different ways, for me, (and likely most people here) I get my pleasure from what is in the bottle….for others, it’s owning the bottle. I once watched a gentleman in a restaurant, (who was drinking iced tea when a bunch of us, “local wine guys” showed up) order a bottle of DRC and take sips of iced tea in between sips of wine and he kept spinning the bottle on the table so that we could all see what he was drinking. Worst part, he did not even finish it….cuzz he’s cool like that. Whatever, I’ll save my cash and enjoy my little, “not worth making a knockoff” wines.

  2. Samantha, that guy sounds like a real jerk if he was deliberately showing off.

  3. Hey, Is this Robin “Gotcha” Goldstein? (the picture looks like him).
    I didn’t know he had a gig with the Times now.

  4. Steve,
    I assure you he was. The whole thing just made me sad for that wine…to be treated with such disrespect, bummed me out.

  5. Steve, when you say the businessmen mixed the wine with Coca Cola, do you mean that they put the two together in the same glass, or were taking sips between the two beverages. In either case, is that a popular thing to do in Hong Kong or just an isolated incident as an anecdote?

  6. Dylan, well I don’t know. I was just quoting from the guy’s column where he said he saw it. I figured they mixed the two in one glass.

  7. Perhaps the wine industry should take a lesson from the fashion industry, and hold contests by which artists create new slogans to ramp up awareness that fakes exist at all. Bazaar magazine is, I think, still running its “Fakes are never in fashion” campaign.

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