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Wine Fraud: More Common Than You'd Think
By Michael Apstein
Sep 13, 2016
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The mother of all wine frauds belongs to Rudi Kurniawan, who was convicted in federal court in 2013 and sentenced to 10 years in prison for essentially selling millions of dollars of counterfeit wine.  In a separate, but related matter, Kurniawan agreed to pay billionaire wine collector Bill Koch $3 million in damages to settle a lawsuit in which Koch claimed Kurniawan sold him fake wine.  So, wine fraud is clearly big business…at least when the 1% of the 1% are involved. 

Wine fraud is, however, nothing new.  Decades ago, before bottling at the château became commonplace, off-site bottlers might add one barrel of lesser-known wine to the 10 barrels of top-notch Bordeaux they were supposed to bottle.  Voilà, instead of 3,000 bottles of Château XYZ, they now had 3,300 bottles, resulting in a two- or three-fold increase in their profit.  It was only when representatives of Château XYZ would taste their wine after bottling that they figured out that something was amiss.  And that’s why the phrase, mis en bouteille au château (bottled at the château) on the label became so important.

(The phrase itself has not prevented all trickery.  One of the more notorious cases involved a château owner himself:  In 1973, the owner of Château Pontet-Canet was caught passing off lowly table wine as high-class wine, mise en bouteille au château, no less.  The scandal forced the sale of the Cruse family-owned Château Pontet-Canet to the father of its current owner, Alfred Tesseron, who also owns Château Lafon Rochet.)

Even today, every so often, we’ll read about some French or Italian producer caught trying to sell down-market wine under a more prestigious appellation.

But something similar--though hardly “fraud,” in the legal sense--occurs on a regular basis, affecting everyday consumers. You can be certain that neither the FBI, nor anyone else, will be investigating what I am talking about.  The perpetrators will never be prosecuted nor make headlines, so it’s up to us individual consumers to be vigilant.  Some of what I am about to describe may be inadvertent, stemming from ignorance, though the pattern suggests otherwise.

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Typically, the more complicated the nomenclature of the wine, the larger the potential for “misunderstanding.”  So let’s start with the single most complicated source of great wine in the entire world, Burgundy.  In the 19th century, the Burgundians succeeded in misleading consumers by appending the name of a village’s famous vineyard to the name of the village--Gevrey became Gevrey-Chambertin--in the hopes that buyers would buy village wine thinking it was Grand Cru.  But in the 20th century, it is wine retailers, not the Burgundians themselves, who are responsible for the current shenanigans. 

Over the last couple of decades, a number of top-flight growers have started their own small négociant businesses.  They capitalize on their famous name by incorporating it into the name of the négociant business.  For example, Domaine Méo-Camuzet’s négociant business is called Méo-Camuzet Frère et Soeur (brother and sister).  Domaine Dujac started their négociant business under the name of Dujac Fils & Père (son and father).  Domaine Pierre Morey’s négociant arm is called Maison Morey Blanc. You get the idea.  None of this is fraudulent or underhanded.  Indeed, it’s a boon for consumers because the talents of these producers are now more available.  Tasted side by side, the grower’s négociant wines, while very good and noteworthy, usually lack the excitement of their Domaine wines and typically sell for less.

The problem arises when the retailer, who invariably knows better--or should, at least--does not distinguish between the two in their listings.  For example, go to the website for Acker Merrall & Condit, a top New York retailer, and you’ll find a long list of wines from Méo-Camuzet without any reference to whether they are Domaine Méo-Camuzet or Méo-Camuzet Frère & Soeur.  This is not the fault of the producer.  Méo-Camuzet’s website shows a clear distinction between the two lines of wine because the labels, which are different, are displayed. 

The problem is not industry-wide.  If you peruse the website of Zachy’s, another top New York retailer, where, you’ll see for the most part, Méo-Camuzet labels displayed next to the name of the wine and the price so you’ll know what you’re buying.  Sometimes too the problem lies in just plain old sloppiness. MacArthur Beverages, a Washington, D.C-based, top-notch retailer, does know to distinguish between the two, and lists them accordingly on its website, Méo-Camuzet and Méo-Camuzet F. & S.  The problem is that they list some of the wines incorrectly.

This is not an issue when buying wines from the traditional négociants, such as Bouchard Père et Fils, Joseph Drouhin, Louis Jadot, or Louis Latour.  Although all of these houses have substantial vineyard holdings and hence have true domaine wines--some of which are even labeled that way--the wines are almost invariably marketed and sold under the name of the négociant house.

If anything, the deception is more prevalent in restaurants where the customer has less time to make a decision, does not see the label itself until it’s too late, and is loathe to return a bottle, especially if dining with guests.  I’ve ordered a bottle of Domaine Leflaive’s sensational Bourgogne Blanc, a wine that could certainly pass for most producers’ village Puligny-Montrachet, only to be served a bottle of Bourgogne Blanc “Les Sétilles” from Maison Olivier Leflaive, a solid wine that retails for about a third the price from an entirely different producer despite the same name.   

Lars Leicht, Director of Trade Development for Banfi, related to me how he has ordered a bottle of Banfi’s Brunello di Montalcino in a restaurant, only to be served a Banfi Rosso di Montalcino, a fine wine, to be sure, but not worthy of a Brunello price.

The most annoying--and likely the most common--deceit in restaurants is serving a vintage of a wine other than the one indicated on the wine list.  It may make little difference whether you order a 2014 Australian Chardonnay and are served the 2013 of the same wine, but the same substitution when ordering Chablis will be substantial given the difference in vintages--the 2014s are fabulous, whereas the 2013s, for the most part, are less thrilling--in that region.

Some top American wineries themselves are responsible for a very common ploy--a variation of bait and switch.  It goes like this:  The winery makes a “reserve” wine—a limited selection of their best wine--and sells it only to restaurants.  Over a fine dinner, a customer loves it and sometime later goes to a retail store to purchase the same wine.  Alas, the wine shop has only the “regular” bottling, which is what the consumer winds up buying.

Readers, caveat emptor!

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E-mail me your experience at Michael.Apstein1@gmail.com and follow me on Twitter @MichaelApstein

September 14, 2016