My most recent Slate column was a follow-up to an investigative piece that I did last June about the wine fraud issue. It is a subject that fascinates me (obviously). It seems clear that the fine wine market has been flooded with fakes. But we still have no idea what’s in these bottles or where exactly they originated; it’s all deliciously murky—“a fun detective story,” in the words of Bill Koch, the collector who has been leading a crusade to expose the fraud problem and to find and punish the perpetrators. At a tasting in Los Angeles in December, I sat across from another collector who has been active in this effort, Russell Frye. Naturally, we discussed the fraud issue, and he made an intriguing point. He suggested that with some of these really old wines, a skilled counterfeiter could effectively manufacture his own reality. If his bottles were the only ones in existence, he could literally define how that wine was supposed to taste.
Is this what Hardy Rodenstock did with the 1921 Château Pétrus, the wine at the center of my June article? Rodenstock served a magnum of the 21 Pétrus at a tasting he hosted in Munich in 1995, and between 1998 and 2004, he shipped 21 magnums of the same wine to Royal Wine Merchants in New York. It is possible he sold additional magnums through other channels. As I reported in my June story, the château has expressed deep skepticism about the authenticity of Rodenstock’s magnums, in part because it has no record of magnums being bottled at Pétrus in the 1920s. Moreover, from what I have been able to find, there were almost no bottles of 21 Pétrus in circulation prior to Rodenstock’s Munich bacchanal, nor did the wine enjoy any particular renown. It was only after Robert Parker gave it a 100-point rating at the Munich tasting that the 21 became a highly sought-after collectible and that bottles began turning up at retail and auction in significant numbers.
Parker, who had no prior experience of the wine, still believes that the 21 served in Munich was genuine, although he has conceded the possibility that it may have been a fake. Interviewed by The New Yorker a few years ago, he noted that even the best wine critics are not infallible, and he said of the Munich tasting that Rodenstock “always seemed to serve the great stuff after you were primed pretty good. People were getting shitfaced.” So alcohol may have been a factor, but I wonder if psychology was an even bigger one. A few weeks after my June story ran, The New Yorker published a terrific piece about art fraud that included the following observation: “When a forgery is exposed, people in the art world generally have the same reaction: how could anyone have ever been fooled by something so obviously phony, so artless…Forgers usually succeed not because they are so talented but, rather, because they provide, at a moment in time, exactly what others desperately want to see. Conjurers as much as copyists, they fulfill a wish or a fantasy. And so the inconsistencies—crooked signatures, uncharacteristic brushstrokes—are ignored or explained away.”
I couldn’t help but think of Rodenstock’s famous tastings when I read that passage. He was serving once-in-a-lifetime wines, the rarest of the rare, and for those in attendance, the desire to believe must have been overwhelming. Desire is an underappreciated emotion when it comes to wine, and it can certainly color one’s judgment. Have you ever tasted a highly acclaimed wine that turned out to be corked? It has happened to me a few times, most recently with a 1989 La Mission Haut-Brion, and in each instance, I spent a good minute or two in denial, attempting to convince myself that maybe my nose had malfunctioned and that the wine was actually fine. I wanted so badly for the wine to deliver a transcendent experience that I tried to pretend the flaw wasn’t there (eventually, I surrendered to the bitter truth). The mind is a powerful instrument, and we can persuade ourselves of all sorts of things that might or might not correspond with reality. To borrow from Upton Sinclair, it is difficult to get a man to see something when the fulfillment of his desire depends on not seeing it, and I suspect that this is exactly what happened with many of these fake wines: people either ignored the clues or latched on to explanations that didn’t call into question the authenticity of the bottles. And I wonder if, when the counterfeiting mystery is finally solved once and for all, the wine world will have the kind of collective reaction described in The New Yorker piece—dismay at the self-deception that allowed the fraud to be perpetrated.