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Fake Wine Follies

2011 September 7
by Mike

The new issue of The Wine Advocate includes an account of a tasting that Robert Parker recently did of 12 magnums of old Bordeaux, all of them allegedly fakes. The lineup included some impressive bottles, among them a 1945 Mouton Rothschild, a 1947 Cheval Blanc, a 1947 Lafleur, a 1961 Latour, and a 1961 Pétrus. The dozen magnums were supplied by William Edgerton, a wine appraiser who has figured prominently in the ongoing controversy over fraudulent bottles. They were originally purchased by an anonymous “private collector”, who apparently bought them from an unnamed source in New York state, and they were all wines that Parker had tasted in the past. In the article, titled “Breaking the Code,” Parker lauds Edgerton’s “obvious ability to detect fraud just by inspecting labels and capsules” and reports that the tasting confirmed that all 12 wines were indeed knockoffs: “It was obvious to me that everything in the tasting was fraudulent based on prior tastings of these exact wines.” Parker rated all of the wines, with scores ranging from 60 points for the 61 Pétrus to 87 points for the 45 Mouton.

The article has generated controversy. Some people are upset that Parker didn’t name the merchant who sold the wines and see this as inconsistent with his role as a self-proclaimed consumer advocate. A few have pointed out that because Parker knew in advance that the wines had been deemed counterfeits, the result of the tasting was potentially skewed. Others have suggested that Parker is now damaged goods with regard to the fraud issue: he may well have been duped by the notorious Hardy Rodenstock, and he was once tight with Jeff Sokolin and Daniel Oliveros of New York’s Royal Wine Merchants, who procured hundreds of suspect bottles from Rodenstock and who appear to have sold fake wines. If Parker wrote the article in the hope of winning back some of the credibility he has lost on this subject, the plan doesn’t seem to be working.

Curious to know more about the tasting, I spoke with Edgerton over the weekend. He told me that the “private collector” who owned the 12 magnums is not really a collector; he is a California gentleman who has no particular interest in wine and purchased the bottles “roughly” 12 years ago simply for investment purposes. Those bottles, plus a smattering of others, were apparently the sum total of his collection. In the print version of his article, Parker says that the wines came from a “Long Island merchant”, but in the online version, the seller is described as a “New York merchant.” Edgerton explained the discrepancy: he said that he was uncomfortable with the level of specificity in the print version, in part because he has not independently confirmed the Long Island connection, and when he made his concerns known, Parker changed the wording in the online version of the article. Parker also had to amend the purchase price he gave for the wines. In the print edition, he says that the buyer paid “nearly $250,000” for the bottles; according to Edgerton, the actual figure was around $100,000, and Parker corrected the information in the online version.

Edgerton told me that when the California gentleman tried to sell the magnums “a couple of years ago”, they were rejected. Edgerton didn’t know whether it was an auction house, broker, or retailer that turned down the consignment.  He told me that this person was then put in touch with him through someone he described as an “agent,” and the bottles were eventually sent to Edgerton for inspection. Based on his examination of the corks, capsules, labels, and bottles, he concluded that the magnums were counterfeits. When he learned that the owner was not planning to take legal action or do anything with the wines, Edgerton bought the bottles in order to continue his investigation. He next decided to test his judgment by opening the magnums and inviting Parker to taste them. This was done, he told me, against the advice of two attorneys, who warned him that if the famed critic deemed the wines to be genuine, it would call into question Edgerton’s credibility as a fraud expert.

He said the tasting took place in June at a restaurant in Baltimore. Besides him and Parker, there were several other attendees, whom he did not identify. Parker paid for the lunch. I asked Edgerton what he thought the tasting had proved. “It proved to me that it is possible to be quite accurate with a visual inspection, including cutting the capsule, in determining if a bottle is counterfeit, is probably counterfeit, is questionable, or is genuine,” he said. When I noted that the tasting hadn’t been done blind, Edgerton replied that he didn’t own enough similarly old and prestigious wines to have been able to organize a meaningful blind tasting.

Edgerton told me that he asked Parker to taste the magnums because “I can’t think of anyone whose conclusions about what’s in the bottle would be any stronger than his. Here’s a guy who had tasted all these wines. I was going to him for his palate.” Edgerton indicated that he was satisfied with The Wine Advocate article but was surprised that Parker had bothered to rate the wines, as they were “all junk.” I mentioned Parker’s interactions with Rodenstock, Sokolin, and Oliveros and suggested that perhaps someone like Serena Sutcliffe of Sotheby’s, who is untainted by the fraud scandal and has far more experience authenticating wines than Parker, might have been a better choice. Edgerton said he didn’t want to involve anyone from an auction house and that because Sutcliffe isn’t as widely known as Parker, doing the tasting with her wouldn’t have garnered as much attention.

In response to criticism of the tasting, Parker has posted several comments on eBob. He reiterated his oft-repeated claim that he was the first person to call attention to the counterfeit issue, back in the late 1990s. He also noted that he was “one of the few people in the world” to have tasted legitimate bottles of all the wines that Edgerton brought to the tasting. In his judgment, the tasting was a landmark event. “All the speculation from journalists who sit on the sidelines and drone on endlessly about fraud without ever having the experience of tasting real vs. fraudulent bottles was put to rest by this tasting,” he wrote.

While I can think of at least one journalist to whom he might have been referring, it’s unclear to me what exactly was “put to rest” by this tasting. At most, it demonstrated that there are really inept knockoffs of some legendary wines, which is hardly a surprising revelation. And while Parker said on eBob that all the wines were “disgusting and pathetic imitations,” his scores indicate that at least one of them, the 45 Mouton, was actually pretty good—worthy of an 87-point rating. Had Parker not known in advance that the Mouton had been judged a counterfeit, would he have given it an even higher score? This underscores the central flaw with the Baltimore tasting: the wines should have been served blind in order to control for what might be called “reverse label bias”. Knowing in advance that a wine is possibly fraudulent inevitably clouds one’s judgment, as I learned when I came off the sidelines last year and tasted three magnums of old Bordeaux that had been sourced from Royal.

At any rate, the Parker/Edgerton tasting moved us no closer to knowing what’s in the counterfeit bottles or who made them. In his tasting notes, Parker suggests that the magnum of 45 Mouton contained Mouton from another vintage and that the 45 La Mission was likely comprised of La Mission from a different year, but that’s just guesswork on his part. And the great unsolved mystery doesn’t concern crappy counterfeits but, rather, all those now-questionable bottles that earned rave reviews from Parker and other experts—wines such as the magnum of 1921 Pétrus that Rodenstock served at the famous tasting he hosted in Munich in 1995. Parker awarded the 21 a 100-point score based on that magnum, but there is now reason to believe that the bottle may been a counterfeit.* Was it a fake, and if so, what was really inside the bottle? These are the big questions that still need answers, and unfortunately, this tasting yielded nothing useful on that front. As far as I can see, no code was broken.

*In his posts on eBob, Parker said nothing about Royal Wine Merchants but offered a couple of comments regarding Rodenstock. He repeated his longstanding claim that the only Rodenstock tasting he ever attended was the Munich event; as I reported last year, his dealings with the controversial German were a bit more extensive than that. He also reiterated his belief that the wines served in Munich were “probably real.” Interestingly, he also returned to the issue of the 1921 Pétrus. Despite fairly overwhelming evidence to the contrary, Parker said that 21 Pétrus “could very well exist in magnums and larger formats.” Back in the day, he said, there was “many a rich Belgian that purchased Pétrus in barrel and had it bottled in Belgium.” Not to be too caustic here, but if I had a dollar for every instance in which someone has claimed a “Belgian cellar” or some variation thereof as the source of dubious large-format bottles of old Bordeaux, I’d have enough money to buy legitimate magnums of all these wines. And one didn’t need to be rich to purchase Pétrus in the 1920s—at that time, Pétrus was regarded as an everyday wine best consumed young, and there was little demand for supersized bottles and little incentive to make them.

35 Responses leave one →
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  6. Jack Bulkin permalink
    October 4, 2011

    Mr. Edgarton thank you for your comments. Are you at liberty to disclose the name of the dealer of these wines. As reported by Robert Parker, the dealer was not named or mentioned and two different locations were provided for its location.

  7. William Edgerton permalink
    October 4, 2011

    As the originator of the Paker tasting of the 12 wines I wish to make five comments but do not wish to participate in a dialog:

    1. The price I paid was nominal – about the cost to ship the wines back.

    2. The purchase was made weeks after the report was sent and after the client decided he did not wish to pursue the matter legally.

    3. I made the purchase since, to my knowledge, there has been no other publicized tasting of bottles identified as fake, and they were purchased specifically to be tasted.

    4. The capsules were previously uncut and three of them had been glued on with something like Elmer’s glue. No producer, to my knowledge, glues capsules on.

    5. Two of the corks had been obviously altered, a fact that could not be determined until the corks were drawn, and the cork in a 1950 wine was marked 1951, also not visible until drawn.

    This tasting was proposed and carried out to find out what was in the bottles, and it did just that. I have been asked this question dozens of times and could not respond. Contrary to the discussion above, I was reluctant to have my name used and/or to obtain any publicity.

    Bill Edgerton

  8. Kent Benson permalink
    September 14, 2011

    Great job, Mike! Thanks for going to the source and asking the pertinent questions.

    Edgerton plainly states why he chose Parker: Parker creates more buzz than anyone else. Edgerton’s objective seems to be to enhance his reputation as a detector of fraudulent wine by the most dramatic means possible.

    From what I’ve read, Michael Broadbent has probably tasted more of these vintages than anyone on earth. If anyone’s palate is well calibrated to these wines, it would be he. Bill Klapp argues that Broadbent was fooled by fakes before. Maybe so, but, if I’m not mistaken, Broadbent was fooled by appearances alone. He never tasted the wine in the Jefferson bottle. Even if he had, has anyone alive ever tasted the 1787 Lafite? Does anyone know how it should taste?

    As authoritative proof of Edgerton’s acumen, Parker seems an odd choice. As anyone who has ever prepared for the blind tasting component of a wine professional certification exam knows, assessing wine for character and quality is a completely different process and skill than assessing a wine for grape variety, place of origin, and producer. One could be very good at one and very poor at the other.

    On at least one occasion, Parker’s abilities in this area were shown to be less than stellar. According to Tyler Colman’s firsthand account of an Executive Wine Seminars tasting, Parker had a lot of trouble correctly matching blind-tasted wines with the corresponding names on a list. In a tasting of 15 wines from Bordeaux’s 2005 vintage, of the six wines he attempted to identify, none were correct.

    What’s more, his guesses were way off. Not only were left bank wines confused – he thought the Lafite was Latour – on most occasions, he guessed the wrong side of the Gironde. He guessed the L’Angélus (St.-Émilion) to be Pape Clement (Pessac-Léognan); the L’Eglise Clinet (Pomerol) to be Cos d’Estournel (St.-Estèphe); the Latour to be Ducru-Beaucaillou (St.-Julien); the Le Gay (Pomerol) to be Margaux; and the Troplong Mondot (St.-Émilion) to be Lafte. He also identified the Ducru as being from Pomerol.

    To his credit, he hit on a few things. He correctly identified the Lafite as a First Growth. Of the Montrose (St.-Estèphe), he said it was definitely Medoc, but he also said it was probably a First Growth. Of the Latour, he said it was very Medoc and very Cabernet, although he also said it was not likely to be a First Growth.

    On the quality front, his results were equally confounding. In the tasting he chose the Le Gay as his favorite. Yet, of all the wines in the tasting the Le Gay was the lowest rated in his most recent (at that time) published review.

    As someone who has done quite a bit of blind and double blind tasting, I know how humbling it can be. Parker’s results reflect just how difficult it is. So, I’m not criticizing him for his poor performance. I’m merely suggesting that he may not be the best person to determine the veracity of a wine by tasting it.

    Did Edgerton’s tasting by Parker prove anything? Not unequivocally. One would think Parker could easily detect a poorly executed fake. But, how about a well executed fake? It would have meant a lot more if he had correctly identified the suspected fake wines from a larger group of control wines in a blind tasting.

    It would be interesting to know how often, if ever, Parker and other high profile critics actually taste the top Bordeaux wines double blind. My suspicion is that critics almost always know when they are tasting First Growth wines. They are therefore psychologically predisposed to inflate their scores. How much would their scores change if the First Growths were randomly thrown in with other wines in double blind tastings? My guess is they would be significantly lower, especially in off vintages.

  9. Wilfred permalink
    September 9, 2011

    Such “wonderful” reasoning: “I attended a tasting of fake wines, all of them. They were disgusting. I gave them low scores. Look how good I am at detecting fakes.”

    Really?

  10. gregt permalink
    September 9, 2011

    Nicely done article. I guess Bob had some fun. What they could have done is announce that SOME of the wines were fake w/out explaining exactly which were which until after the tasting – that would have been an interesting tasting, but otherwise, I’m not sure what was proven.

    It’s quite apparent that nobody can say for sure, whether “expert” or not. Don’t forget, Broadbent didn’t sue because he was called out as less than expert, he sued because of an offhand comment someone allegedly made regarding a mysterious last minute telephone bid. Unless they’re drinking these ancient wines fairly regularly, there’s really no reason that Serena or Broadbent or anyone really would know by tasting whether they’re drinking the real thing or not.

    But the article fleshed out the story, making it more interesting as a story but less interesting as an event. Thanks Mike!

  11. Tone Kelly permalink
    September 8, 2011

    One question. If one tastes very old wines blind with no information on the location, type, etc. , what is the probability that the taster will identify the region, wine, producer and year? Probably slim to none. So it is very easy to pass off fake wines. If one cannot guess/tell the wine when it is genuine, why does it surprise us that wine fakes are so easy to pass off. Human greed plus label reading will lead us to go along with what is presented. It isn’t surprising that people have gotten away with fakes for so long. The trip wire wasn’t the individual wines. It was that so many of them came from one individual and in unusual sizes from producers who had no records of producing the sizes from that year. In other words, it wasn’t the identifying of the individual wines that triggered the realization, but all the other ancillary information about sizes/years/quantity/etc. that triggered the the realization that something wasn’t correct.

  12. Howard Horwitz permalink
    September 8, 2011

    I fail to see the point of this tasting. Mr. Edgerton evaluates bottles, corks and capsules to determine if the bottles are authentic. He cannot possibly evaluate the wine that is in such bottles without opening the bottles or otherwise extracting the wine itself. It is theoretically possible that a counterfeit bottle could still hold the wine it purports to hold, though that would make no economic sense. Thus, I don’t see what Mr. Edgerton was attempting to accomplish, except perhaps to gain publicity. And for Mr. Parker, how was this tasting any different than filling empties with grape juice and then conducting a tasting publicized as “come check out the fakes!”? Any idiot would then conclude that the wines described as fake were in fact fake. Such idiocy. If he wants to do something meaningful, taste blind, throw in some real wines with the fakes, and make known your conclusions before revealing the wines. But don’t hold your breath that this will ever happen, of course.

  13. Ryan permalink
    September 8, 2011

    When I read “Billionaire’s Vinegar” I was struck by the tenuous grasp some of the players in that drama had on what constitutes proof. At one point, IIRC, Wallace chalks it up to a difference in “philosophy” between the enthusiasts and the historians. He was being generous. (And he got sued anyway – how’s that for gratitude?)

  14. Excab permalink
    September 8, 2011

    Oh what a web we wieve, when we practice to deceive.

    Parker has been in that rarified stratisphere of the Judge of Wines far too long. You get that guy in your tent, you have it made in the shade.

    Only thing is, my wines stand on their own feet and are some of the best.

    Well, California and Paso Robles not the Bourdoux wines of France, let alone the investment portfolio types.

    Winemaking should be up to the creative spirit of the winemaker, the fruit, balance, love, energy that goes into it. Not just to please some guy on the types of wines he prefers. Lots of sheep going down that path for a long time.

  15. Dale Williams permalink
    September 8, 2011

    Nice article. Put me in the camp of “nothing proved here.” So Parker was given 12 wines that he was told were fake, and then declared they were fake. No need for great tasting skills there.

    I find it amusing that Parker is making guesses as to the actual contents of the bottles. The only times he has ever tasted blind publicly that I know of (I think we can put aside the “French TV” story until Parker finds the tape or someone credible who witnessed it) and made guesses were the EWS Bordeaux tastings. Those were single blind, and I think only once in many years did he get the vast majority correct (10 of 12 on the 1979 vintage) -sometimes missing every wine. Those were all wines he had tasted recently. So his speculation to actual contents is probably not exactly scientific.

  16. Morton permalink
    September 8, 2011

    All sixty-five year old wines, ideally stored, show marked changes in color, aroma and flavor. The tawny brick red, generic winey bouquet devoid of fruit, and the depleted flavor would be intolerable in a five year old wine which would be considered defective. Characteristics of specific terroir , except in their grossest terms, are lost. This means an old wine of “breed” is appreciated primarily for its resilience to the many years of aging. This sliding scale for old wines is such that, the real interest in the wine tasted is the wine’s identity, not its absolute quality. And this in turn, means that only authentic wines can achieve a high score on the Parker scale.

  17. September 8, 2011

    About that Baltimore restaurant where they ate lunch…. corkage is illegal in Maryland. A counterfeit restaurant, perhaps?!?

  18. September 8, 2011

    While the crime saga of who did what to whom is inescapably titillating, the denouement of ALL the heretofore ancillary fools and tools climbing all over each other to reposition themselves and their tawdry agendas?; well, not so much. From start to finish, the wine fraud story has the same script as the securitized mortgage fraud story. No.. wait- scratch that, neither story is finished, just out for re-write.

    Oliver Goldsmith: “Every absurdity has a champion to defend it.”

  19. Jack Bulkin permalink
    September 8, 2011

    A fairly presented article as is your norm Michael. I was troubled by Mr. Parker’s real agenda in attending this tasting and asked him why he attended.
    His response as you say left more questions unanswered than answered and ” moved us no closer to knowing what’s in the counterfeit bottles or who made them.”
    Thanks for terrific comments.

  20. mauss permalink
    September 8, 2011

    What is the real target behind all these discussions ? Do I miss a kind of fight actually on the ring of “Wines in USA” ?

  21. September 8, 2011

    It just seemed by using Parker who has tasted wines in the past that were not fake but now are found to be Edgerton could have gone with someone with a bit more credit or know-how when it comes to the area in the wine world. I remember a few years back another specialist and I sat down with David and he pointed out some problems with another auction house catalog, i.e., labels and things and the one I noticed myself was the vintage on a Burgundy red that was impossible since the vines were pulled up and they had no vines at the time. Just seems like maybe Edgerton was trying to make Parker look like a fool rather than an expert at wines.

  22. Bill Klapp permalink
    September 8, 2011

    The problem with using an in-house legend like Molyneux-Berry, Broadbent or others is that, in the past, fake bottles were not fakes when sold by auction houses. This is not meant to impugn the integrity of such people, but it is to say that post-Rodenstock, with as many as were snookered (and sued, in some cases), there IS no fraud expert in the fine wine game…

  23. September 8, 2011

    I guess I’m not sure why Edgerton would still use Parker if he knew Parker had so-called problems with possible fake wines in the past. Why not use someone like David Molyneux-Berry, MW who has been basically writing the book on fake wines? I used to work for a NYC wine auction house and David was our auctioneer and I believe still works for them. We got to the point where we could tell if the wines were fake by the label, capsule and cork. I personally have a collection of photographs that point of problems with fake labels and was able to learn a lot from David.

  24. The Gilmeister permalink
    September 8, 2011

    Aha, so Edgerton tells the “collector” (a stretch to be called that with an inventory of 12 magnums and little else…): Your bottles are fake and you wasted all your money, so let me buy them for a song and a dance…haha good one! Either way, Edgerton has no money, so he would never buy such expensive wines, but he serves his master well…for money of course…

  25. TWG permalink
    September 7, 2011

    The appraiser was conflicted, he gives a value and then makes an offer to buy?

  26. September 7, 2011

    Congratulations on a report difficult to envision as any more thorough and balance.

  27. September 7, 2011

    A non-event from the Emperor? I’m shocked, shocked I tell you.

  28. September 7, 2011

    Michael,

    Well done! Once again, you have shown true journalistic integrity, by actually researching the subject at hand, to avoid any conflicts.

    Parker’s initial article is riddled with potential mistakes. Something that folks have questioned him on, but he ignores.

    This was far from a landmark tasting. The tasting, in the end, proved just what you say, nothing. There are some bad fakes of wines. The tasting should have been done blind against other wines.

    How much did Edgertn pay for these wines?

  29. September 7, 2011

    It’s painful to wade through all of this and the ridiculous precious metal status that’s been given to wine. I’d like to think that all this will debunk a lot of the grandiosity around wine for the sake of investment, but undoubtedly someone else will rise to be the new Parker if he ends up falling, even just a little.

    It’s so much easier and satisfying to find a solid bottle for $20 or less and drink it the same day.

Trackbacks and Pingbacks

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