Wine crimes. Counterfeit liquors of the ages, precious ones, your favourites and the pretty cheap ones

This summer, French police entered several wine depots in the Bordeaux region. The owner of a respected winery was arrested, along with 20 other people suspected of massive wine adulteration. And it is known from leaks that investigators have still not tracked down the main bottler. The case is evolving and shows how crimes involving the 'drink of the gods' are changing: nowadays, they do not only involve recognised global brands. Increasingly, there is counterfeiting of cheap wines.

When we talk about robbery or counterfeiting in the world of wine, the most precious bottles usually come to mind - in other areas, too, by the way, valuable items are involved. The most precious bottles are thus counterfeited and stolen. In the United States of America and Europe, the plundering of precious stocks from distinguished restaurants or boutique shops has become a scourge, even though they are usually protected by armoured doors and movement-sensitive systems.

Sometimes, however, all that is needed is a simple "Riffifi" style robbery, as described by the Duńczyk to Henryk Kwinto in the film 'Vabank': a small hole in the wall, an umbrella so that the crumbs do not arouse the detectors, and a rope with a loop or a fishing rod to retrieve the bottles. This is how the smarties 'did' one of the Parisian boutiques Les Caves de Taillevent in 2020, taking just twenty bottles, but with a value of fifty thousand euros!

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It should be added that the robbers always do a long reconnoitre and are well informed about stock levels, because the name of a famous expensive wine on the menu rarely means that there will be 20 bottles of it in the cellar. Such was the case last October when a pair of 'tourists' ambushed the warehouse of the Michelin-starred Spanish restaurant and hotel Atrio in Cáceres. They took just 45 bottles, but with a value of well over one million euros! Among them was a bottle of sweet Château d'Yquem sauternes from 1806, which the restaurant had bought at auction in 2000 for twelve thousand euros, while it was already on the menu for... 350 thousand.

Here, there was no 'Riffifi' - the couple went 'for broke'. The woman ordered a salad at one o'clock at night, and as the kitchen was already closed, the attendant turned off the alarms and threw himself into preparing the meal. During this time, the woman's partner picked out the bottles he had selected and packed them in the back of their car. This was a typical bespoke theft, as the valuable bottles were stored in various places in the large cellar - they had great reconnaissance. The cheaper wines were not moved.
Hardy Rodenstock (left) and Fritz Walter (honorary player of the German national football team) at the birthday party of chef Bernhard Paul, 1987 in Wiesbaden. Photo: Peter Bischoff/Getty Images
Such break-ins set off all the red lights in auction houses all over the world, but frazzled collectors are able to pay almost any price for a coveted "second-circulation" bottle. Auction specialists are not always able to spot forgeries either. The Rodenstock-Koch case is a case in point. Well, Hardy Rodenstock (born as Meinhard Görke in Kwidzyn), a German collector of centuries-old wines organising tasting evenings for the elite, announced in the 1980s that he had discovered bottles from the stocks of... Thomas Jefferson, the third President of the United States! And this was in Paris, in a walled cellar (the American was ambassador to France in the late 18th century). The wines found their way to Christie's auction in London (a purported Chateau Lafite, vintage 1787, was bought for $175,000), then - over the years - to the cellars of millionaires. Although historians raised doubts, which were confirmed by expert reports commissioned by the pissed-off buyer, sailor and collector William Koch. The bottles were made before 1945, and the initials "ThJ" on them were not created with 18th-century tools.

It would seem that it is much easier to detect almost boorishly adulterated bottles with labels made at home in the kitchen. But the high-profile case of Rudy Kurniawan shows that even seasoned experts can be fooled in this way. The Indonesian (his surname after his Chinese father is Zhen Wang Huan) came to the United States as a student at the end of the century. He began buying and auctioning rare wines and organising tastings until he became known as 'Dr Conti' owning 'probably the largest cellar on Earth'. Gradually, wineries began to report to the auction houses that the pieces he was putting up were fakes, because fewer bottles had been produced than had been submitted for auction. Or the given wine was not produced at all, or not in the given vintage. When the FBI arrested Kurniawan in 2012, they found corks, stamps, labels and inexpensive Napa wines in his home, which he had labelled with prestigious producer names and older Bordeaux vintages. Interestingly, one of the Indonesian's victims was also Bill Koch.

Rodenstock is no longer alive (he died in 2018), Kurniawan was put in jail (he was sentenced to 10 years and deported to Indonesia in 2021), but such actions happen every year. And they will, as long as stupefied collectors continue to seek out rare bottles at super bargain prices....

Drugs are not enough. You make money on Bordeaux and Priorat

The new face of fraud, and already on a grand scale, is becoming that of cheap, table wines. Why adulterate the most expensive products when everyone is watching you, while you can do it with cheap wines that few people bother with?
'Wine collector' Rudy Kurniawan. The photo illustrated a 2005 feature about Pierre Henry Gagey, CEO of Maison Louis Jadot in France, and a dinner where several collectors tasted his 1959 wines.Photo by Ricardo DeAratanha/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images
Sometimes the police catch them simply from newspaper advertisements - such was the case in Italy a year ago, following a few journalistic texts. The journalists began to doubt that a certain wine - sold by a large cooperative and promoted in supermarket newspapers - could be offered at such a bargain price and appear on the market in such large numbers. The Italian guardia di finanza checked the books of the advertiser and the management of the cooperative went to jail. But it is not always that simple.

The Bordeaux scammers were ambushed by the police for a long time and law enforcement had to operate simultaneously in several regions of the country, but they were also very lucky. More than a hundred police officers in seven regions of France were involved in the operation. The case was a splinter one - during the hunt for drug traffickers, the gendarmes accidentally and with great surprise found professional bottling equipment and mountains of fake wine labels. It was a stroke of luck that the officers linked this fact to an earlier complaint from a Bordeaux producer that someone was bottling fake wine under his brand name.

Behind the swindle was the owner of another château in Bordeaux, and cheap table wine with the protected designation of origin 'Bordeaux', the best-selling brand in the world, was being bottled. It should be mentioned that only about 10 per cent of Bordeaux's products are top-shelf, with new vintages and prices being written about in more than just the trade press. The rest is mostly fairly average bulk, powering supermarket shelves at fairly affordable, though almost always premium, prices. Their blockbuster appeal is only evidenced by that magical inscription on the label: "Bordeaux". This successfully trumps cheaper and better quality wine offerings. After all, it is Bordeaux...

But even here, purchasers of the counterfeit bottles could not be sure, as most of the bottled wine came from... Spain. The public prosecutor's office estimates that there were around several hundred thousand bottles of fakes, many of which were exported.

Interestingly, the French have had a problem with Spanish wines for a long time. A few years ago, the French General Office of Competition, Consumers and Fraud Control conducted a lengthy investigation into the wines of 2016-2017, revealing that in nearly 2,500 restaurants and bars visited by their agents, almost a fifth of the wines were mislabelled or their label was deliberately misleading. As a result, consumers were led to believe they were drinking French wines, while they were served Spanish ones, albeit bottled in France. Inscriptions indicating the actual origin of the wines - e.g. 'Vin d'Espagne' or 'Vin de la Communauté Européenne' - were given in small print on the counter-sticker. The country of origin of the wine also did not appear on the wine cards used by the establishments inspected. In addition, typical French terms or names such as 'châteaux' or common, very distinctive terms such as 'Fleur-de-Lis' or 'Cuvée du Patron' appeared on the labels.
But things are also going badly on the other side of the Pyrenees. The case of a fat fraud of tens of millions of euros uncovered last year will go on trial in Barcelona in September. As many as 40 million bottles are estimated to have been falsified. As in the Bordeaux case, it involved the affixing of noble appellations, or appellations of origin, to the labels of simple table wines, exclusively the highly regarded Catalan ones: DOQ Priorat and DO Terra Alta, Tarragona, Catalunya and Monsant. To connoisseurs of Spanish wines, especially terms on labels such as 'Priorat' and 'Monsant', no explanation is necessary. On trial will be six people from the association Grupo Reserva de la Tierra, who were alleged to have earned around €14 million a year from 2019 to 2021.

Once again, however, what is most surprising is the utter carelessness of the alleged offenders, because in the Terra Alta appellation, for example, the number of bottles sold per year exceeded 13 times the number stipulated by the appellation regulations, while in Priorat it was 9 times and in Tarragona an astronomical 25 times! It should be added that Priorat is home to some of Spain's most expensive wines, so it was fairly easy for local producers to realise that there was something wrong with their wines on the market, and for the fiscal police to quickly get to the bottom of it.

The law enforcement authorities also secured the defendants' e-mail boxes, and in them they found some appalling things from the point of view of wine lovers. For example, consumers had been complaining for a long time about the quality of the wines supplied to the well-known supermarket chains, so Grupo Reserva de la Tierra politely apologised, withdrew them from some places and reallocated them to others. It is also unfortunate that a huge amount of wine was exported abroad, to various countries in Europe, the United States, China and Brazil. This image harm will be very difficult to repair.

Finally, let us note that protected designations of origin were introduced precisely to avoid the adulteration of wines originating in specific places and produced in a specific way. This happened in the 1930s in France and later the whole world joined in. One of the reasons was the massive adulteration of the famous red Burgundy pommard wine, which at the time was sold as much per week - as it was calculated at the time - as a tiny commune could produce... per year!

The overproduction of wine in the world is a fact and it is huge. The collapse has been exacerbated by the pandemic and the vast stocks of wine stored in various producer countries. Well, we will have to redouble our attention to what we are buying, but we can hardly expect the lucrative business to be put to an end in an instant. Easy money is tempting, but there is also plenty of room behind bars....

– Wojciech Gogoliński
-translated by Tomasz Krzyżanowski

TVP WEEKLY. Editorial team and jornalists

Main photo: Why adulterate your most expensive wares when everyone is looking at your hands, when you can do it with cheap wines that few people bother with? Photo by Natasha Breen/REDA&CO/Universal Images Group via Getty Images
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