Fake Wine Follies
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.