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Head Games

2011 February 10
by Mike

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.

3 Responses leave one →
  1. February 21, 2011

    Hi Saul,

    Thanks for the comment, and for the kind words; much appreciated. As I indicated in my post, that quote from The New Yorker piece about art fraud really jumped out at me, and I do wonder if the same dynamic was at work with many of these apparently counterfeit wines.

    That’s an interesting point about Burgundy. The scenario you describe is certainly possible, and there’s no way to prove that 100 percent of the fruit corresponds with what’s on the label. But I assume that if anything like that goes on, it involves lesser domaines. I think the better producers have too much respect for consumers and for great terroirs like Bonnes Mares to fiddle with their wines in that way. I suspect that the fear of being found out would also act as a deterrent; it would be absolutely ruinous to a reputation.

    Thanks, again, for the comment.


  2. Saul permalink
    February 18, 2011

    Excellent work on your investigative pieces. The similarities between the alleged fraudsters in the art and wine world are striking. In both cases, when confronted, they have a way of explaining away inconsistencies that is maddening. I can not believe neither of them has been arrested since it appears that they’ve been exposed with a great amount of circumstantial evidence. I hope you keep us updated on developments as they occur.
    Although I could never afford to spend $30k on a bottle of wine (unless I won the lottery) I find the topic of fraud in the wine world endlessly fascinating. It does not have to involve only old prize bottles. As an example, I always wonder what prevents am unscrupulous Burgundy producer who owns land across different appellations from simple Bourgognes to Grand Crus from concocting and bottling a wine of lesser vineyards and putting a Bonnes-Mares, Clos De Beze or Clos De La Roche label on it? We are speaking of huge price differentials. As a consumer who walks into a store how do I know that what is inside that bottle of 2009 Bonnes Mares is indeed 100% fruit from Bonne Mares? A couple of years back I worked in the warehouse of an importer of excellent reputation in the U.S. One day while fulfilling an order of 2007 Marsannay I opened a case. To my shock and amazement inside I found a bottle labeled Bonnes Mares among the other 11 Marsannays. Upon close inspection, every bottle was exactly the same, except of course for the label. How could it happen? What was really inside the Bonnes Mares bottle? Was it a Marsannay that was mislabeled purposely or by error? How could a real Bonnes Mares end up in Marsannay case? I’m still shaken by what I saw in that case and wonder, what is really inside all those Grand Crus?

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