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by Madhurima Mukhopadhyay

Counterfeit wines are flooding the market these days and wine collectors and manufacturers are a worried lot. The wine folk are now turning to scientific methods to curb the problem, writes Madhurima Mukhopadhyay.

Collecting fine wine is a fine hobby. It is a hobby of the rich and the famous. It is an expensive hobby, but it is also a hobby that stems out of love for the mighty drink. As a result, the wine collectors go a long way to ensure their bottle of the prized vintage is real. Counterfeit wines are flooding the markets these days, leaving both collectors as well as manufacturers very worried. Many are helpless while others are proactive – they vouch to go the entire distance to ensure their rare wine is indeed rare and real, and not a cheap replica. So how do they do it? Well, they simply rely on science.

The billionaires’ choice

Billionaire Bill Koch is an avid wine collector. In an article published by Bloomberg.com, author Mark Ellwood sated that it wasn’t until 2005 that Koch first became suspicious of being a victim of the bustling fake wine industry. Ellwood notes that four bottles of 1787 Bordeaux, said once to have belonged to Thomas Jefferson, were actually cheap fakes. He had spent $500,000 on the auction. It was then that he decided to conduct a check on his 43,000-bottle cellar. Alarmingly, 211 bottles of wine turned out to be fakes, leading to a massive setback to Koch.

Spotting the counterfeit wine

Rudy Kurniawan, who was recently prosecuted and sent to prison for 10 years, is a known offended. Most of the fake wine in Koch’s cellar was auctioned by Kurniawan, an Indonesian born wine dealer who made his fortune by counterfeiting the top and the best vintages from around the world.

So how did he pull it off? Kurniawan’s house was raided by the FBI in 2012. They found his modus-operandi to be simple, yet skillful – refilling empty bottles of the classic wines. He carefully removed the labels, pasted the fake labels, filled the fake drink in and authentically re-corked the bottles. Practically no one with a naked eye could spot any difference.

The scientists step in

But Koch and a few others in the billionaires’ club were not willing to let the fraudster get away. Koch contacted physicist Philippe Hubert from the University of Bordeaux and had him test the wines to identify the fakes. Hubert, with the help of hi-tech detectors and a lot of intelligent thinking, promptly created mechanisms through which the fakes could be spotted. The physicist also realized that the isotope, cesium-137, was created by nuclear fission only after the Hiroshima bombings of 1945. Any wine bottled before that would never have traces of the isotope. This is a very effective method to spot fake wine and make fraudsters fall into the trap!

Apart from Hubert, his colleague Herve Guegan also plays a role in the scientific interrogation. Guegan does a chemical fingerprint test of the glass of the bottle. This allows him to understand the year in which the bottle was manufactured. Once that is done, he equates the bottle with the liquid inside and if the dates don’t match, the fraud is exposed instantly.

Further authentication

While the collectors do their own thing to ensure the wine they bought is real, the manufacturers these days have also started taking adequate steps to ensure the wines don’t get replicated in the first place.

Napa Valley’s Opus One Winery, which is one of the most renowned wineries in the world today, had discovered a few years back that their wines were openly replicated in many countries. To prevent this, the company started adding an NFC – near-field communication, chip on each bottle. All the consumers had to do was scan the chip with their smart phones and view a video specially made by the winery. However, this method soon seemed outdated as the counterfeiters started refilling the empty bottle, while carefully preserving the chip. This was hardly a difficult task for a skilled fraudster like Kurniawan, who was always a step ahead. To get hold of the situation, the winery has now added a special tamper-proof ink signature, containing a ‘validator card’. Quite obviously, not much information is available on the mechanism, as the winery bosses are being as cautious as possible to keep the formula hidden from the counterfeiters.

These steps taken by the wineries are definitely helping, but there seems to be a long battle ahead still to completely wipe out the billion-dollar fake wine industry.

A pricey affair

Koch is so particular that he doesn’t mind spending the dimes. A bottle of wine may require almost $800 to get authenticated, but the rich collectors don’t seem to mind. Wine for the collectors is like art for the artists. Bloomberg.com quoted Koch as saying, “It’s sacrilegious. Here is something beautiful and wonderful they are destroying for base reasons. How would you feel if some guy burnt the Mona Lisa? I feel my love has been violated.” 

He feels that more people should come out and join the battle against the fraudsters, but sadly most collectors shy away from doing so. In the meanwhile, the small efforts being taken by the handful of wine lovers will hopefully pave the way for a fight fierce enough to wipe this menace off.




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