Philip Moulin pries the lid off a wooden crate and removes a bottle of a 2000 Bordeaux that can fetch $10,000 per case. But Moulin has neither corkscrew nor decanter in hand. Instead, he scans the label with a digital magnifying glass and grunts with satisfaction when he finds a strand of microscopic letters spelling out “Chateau Margaux” repeatedly in an image of the winery’s grand estate—an indication that the wine is authentic.

Moulin is the in-house detective at Berry Bros. & Rudd, a 321-year-old wine merchant that stocks the cellar at Buckingham Palace and stores more than 6 million bottles for collectors. With counterfeit wines proliferating amid soaring prices for prized vintages, his job is to prevent fakes from landing in the company’s cavernous warehouse 50 miles west of London, where the temperature is maintained at a constant 53.6 degrees F.

Much of the wine customers keep at Berry Bros. will eventually be sold on the merchant’s online marketplace, so it’s in the company’s interest to ensure everything it stores is the real deal. “My aim is to not let anything threatening come into the business and damage our reputation,” Moulin says.

As workmen negotiate the warehouse aisles on mini-forklifts behind him, Moulin moves on from the Margaux to a consignment of Italian reds—one of the dozen or so cases he’ll inspect throughout the day. His workbench is strewn with magnifying loupes, ultraviolet pen lights, a laptop hooked up to a digital microscope, and a hammer and chisel for opening wooden wine cases. But his best resource is the knowledge he’s gleaned from 25 years working with what Galileo called “sunlight, held together by water.”

Fraudsters use myriad tricks to fool buyers into paying top dollar for bogus wine. They fabricate labels, recycle old bottles and corks, and conjure up phony purchase histories for their ersatz vintages. While criminals have long favored faking older wines because they’re so pricey, Moulin and other experts say scammers are increasingly targeting newer vintages because they tend to attract less scrutiny.

A year ago, Chinese authorities seized more than 50,000 bogus bottles of Penfolds, the prestigious Australian producer, in a raid in Zhengzhou. In February, three men in Italy were charged with counterfeiting some 11,000 bottles of Tignanello, an opulent red from the Marchesi Antinori winery in Tuscany.

Though the wine, dated from 2009 to 2011, didn’t make it to market, Moulin was alarmed that an alleged organized crime gang had faked a Super Tuscan that runs $80 a bottle instead of an aged Bordeaux or Burgundy that might fetch north of $10,000. “The counterfeiting of younger vintages is being done at a really high standard and at scale,” Moulin says.

Ever since California con man Rudy Kurniawan flooded the fine wine market with tens of thousands of fakes a decade ago, vintners have scrambled to protect their handiwork from grifters. They mark their bottles with holograms visible only in ultraviolet light, emboss glass with intricate engravings, and use invisible inks and rare paper on their labels.

In September, a San Francisco company called Chai Vault even started embedding computer chips in the foil atop bottles to record and track them on a digital ledger based on blockchain, the technology that underpins bitcoin. The idea is that registering rare wines in a tamper-proof database means their authenticity will never be in doubt.

Even so, there’s little chance scammers will be deterred, says Maureen Downey, the founder of Chai Vault and a wine sleuth who helped the FBI bust Kurniawan in 2012.  There’s just too much money to be made as collectors continue driving up the prices of top-shelf Bordeaux, Burgundies, Napa Valley cabernets, and Italian reds. In the first half of this year, Sotheby’s auctioned a record $65 million worth of wine, a 23% jump from the same period in 2018. And just about any anti-fraud measure can be beaten by well-financed organized crime networks, Downey says. 

First « 1 2 » Next