When it comes to buying wine, it’s the same as buying any other product. If prices and/or the availability of certain bottles seem too good to be true, they most assuredly are.
The only safe way to buy a wine of a lifetime — the really fancy stuff like Domaine de la Romanée Conti, Château Lafite Rothschild or Screaming Eagle — is to buy from a source that vets its sources.
Then you won’t get scammed. Buy through an auction house or a friend of a friend, however, and the odds of being duped rise precipitously.
Most of us, of course, never even get into this game. But, with the recent arraignment of arguably history’s most audacious wine swindler, it’s a cautionary tale worth telling.
Because prices have soared for the great wines — in large part because of exploding Chinese sales — curious things are happening with releases from storied vintages, especially at auction.
Fortunately, a few counterfeiters have been tripped up by their own careless mistakes. The aforementioned alleged counterfeiter, Rudy Kurniawan, is facing up to 80 years in the big house for selling fakes — most infamously, Grand Cru Burgundies that were never made in the first place.
Acker Merrall & Condit of New York, with whom Kurniawan had an uncomfortably comfortable relationship, put up for bid one of his consignments that contained a 1929 Clos de la Roche from Domaine Ponsot plus 38 bottles of Ponsot’s Clos Saint-Denis from 1945 through 1973. But there was a problem. Ponsot hadn’t released the former under its own label until 1934 and the latter wine didn’t debut until the early 1980s.
How dumb is that?
Nonetheless, the Jakarta-born Kurniawan, a major market-maker in super high-end juice since the early 2000s — when he was still in his 20s — was smart enough for years to foist millions of dollars worth of bogus juice on some of the country’s most respected collectors.
As a result, top cellars across the country contain an untold number of bottles that aren’t what the labels say they are.
To be sure, there are phony wines in some of Houston’s celebrated caves, but it’s not an easy story to chase down. Nobody wants to admit they’ve been suckered.
But, again, if you’ve been sourcing from stores like Spec’s and Richard’s, which is owned by Spec’s, or other trustworthy retailers, you almost certainly have nothing to worry about.
Spec’s fine wine buyer Bear Dalton says his giant chain purchases its Grand Crus and cult wines either directly from the winery to guarantee provenance, or through trustworthy wholesalers such as Nathaniel Johnston & Fils, a Bordeaux firm that has been exporting wine since 1734.
“The key word is ‘trustworthy,’” Dalton said. “Lots of négociants want to do business with us, but we won’t do business with them because we couldn’t be sure we weren’t being sold a lot of crap. With guys like Archie and Ivanhoe (Johnston), when they say their wine has been laying in the château, we believe them.
“And we never buy wine through auction houses for the same reason. You can’t be certain where it came from and how it’s been stored. I’ll admit it, we’re scared of this whole fake wine thing. We got victimized a bit once.”
Dalton got firsthand knowledge about fakes when buying Château Petrus by the case on behalf of a wealthy customer in Mexico about 10 years ago.
The fabled Pomerol had already become exceedingly difficult to obtain, even for a retailer with Spec’s purchasing clout, and Dalton had to shop the spot market to fill the order.
He wound up with several suspicious-looking bottles.
“I’m not an expert on fakes,” he said, “but I could tell someone was pulling a fast one. There were irregularities in the labels and the bottles. The fill levels weren’t consistent.”
To stock the new Spec’s store in Dallas from scratch with library wines dating back to the 1990s (it’s not legal in Texas to ship inventory from one region to another), Dalton dared take no shortcuts.
He went straight to his favorite go-to sources like the Johnstons, placing orders that totaled about $1 million. And he’s comfortable he got what he paid for.
“I’d bet my paycheck,” he said, “that there are no fakes on our Bordeaux aisle.”
Follow Dale Robertson on Twitter at @sportywineguy.