(Embargoed for use at 12:01 a.m. Eastern time on April 12.)
By Ryan Flinn
April 11 (Bloomberg) -- As a collector of rare and
expensive wines, Claude Blankiet suspects that he’s drunk at
least a few fakes without noticing.
Wine counterfeiters make it hard to tell whether you’re
really drinking the vintage indicated on the label, he says. And
since high-end wines can fetch thousands of dollars, the
incentive to create fakes is huge, says Blankiet, who makes his
own highly rated Bordeaux-style blends in Napa Valley,
“How do you know it’s a real wine? If you open up a ‘45
Mouton, is this a ‘45 or a ‘95?” he said. “When the gain can
be achieved quickly and that easily, people actually do it.”
To combat counterfeiting, wineries are combining the
ancient art of winemaking with cutting-edge technology. They’re
putting tiny radio-frequency ID tags inside labels, embedding
microscopic material into the ink printed on the bottles, and
even carbon dating wine to ensure authenticity.
It’s an arms race with the counterfeiters, who are
attracted to the industry because of the soaring prices of rare
wines at auction. In the past five years, prices of the 100 most
sought-after wines have increased almost threefold, according to
the Liv-ex fine-wine index.
“It’s almost like the housing boom,” said Neil Ivey, a
salesmanager at Payne Security in Washington, a firm that
develops anti-counterfeiting measures for the wine industry.
At a Zachys Burgundy auction in San Francisco last month, a
3-liter bottle of 1959 Chambertin Armand Rousseau fetched
Payne relies on a special ink printed on a tag that goes
over the bottle’s foil capsule. Wineries can use a handheld
reader that receives a signal from the ink. That verifies the
bottle came from the right place.
Blankiet doesn’t want drinkers to have doubts about his own
wine. Since 2005, every Blankiet Estate bottle has included a
special seal with a pattern on it that can’t be replicated.
The technology was designed by Prooftag SAS in Montauban,
France. If the bottle is opened, the tag is destroyed. Buyers
can verify the tag is authentic by logging on to a Web site.
“Each tag is like a fingerprint,” Blankiet said.
Chuck McMinn, the owner of Vineyard 29 in Napa, is working
with Coral Gables, Florida-based IProof to incorporate RFID tags
into the foil covering his corks.
“We do recognize that our wines are sought after,” said
McMinn, who founded Covad Communications Group Inc. in 1996,
before moving on to wine. “So we’ve taken a number of steps to
make it a headache for the copiers to try and go after our
McMinn also will let buyers verify the provenance of the
wines themselves. Mobile phones with RFID readers, which are
widely available overseas and should start appearing in the U.S.
soon, will let customers do just that, he says.
“When you scan it with a cell phone, it will call up a
specific Web page for the specific wine you just bought,”
McMinn said. It can also be used as a marketing tool, he says.
It can be set to show customers the winery’s tasting notes or
offer food pairing suggestions.
Another way to determine the vintage of an older bottle:
the so-called bomb pulse.
Nuclear weapons testing during the 1950s and early 1960s
almost doubled the amount of carbon-14 isotopes in the
atmosphere, says Graham Jones, a professor who specializes in
wine and horticulture at the University of Adelaide in
Australia. That concentration, called the bomb pulse, can be
measured in organic material from that time, he says.
The bomb pulse provides a clock for dating biological
materials formed after 1955, Jones says. Grapes grown during
those years -- and in the decades after -- retain a “memory”
of the particular vintage. The memory is still there when grapes
turn into wine, he says.
The wine industry is behind other fields in adopting anti-
counterfeiting technology, Ivey says. Tobacco, pharmaceuticals
and ID-document companies have made it a higher priority, he
“It certainly isn’t at the stage yet where we’re seeing
security divisions within wineries that think about nothing but
protecting their brands,” Ivey said. “It’s usually a person or
two who kind of acknowledges within a winery that there is a
Billionaire collector William Koch has spotlighted the risk
of buying counterfeit wines. Koch, who has a 40,000-bottle
cellar, sued auction houses Christie’s International Plc, Zachys
Wine Auctions and Acker Merrall & Condit for allegedly selling
The lawsuits started in 2006, when he filed a complaint
against German wine dealer and former pop music managerHardy
Rodenstock, who sold wines he claimed had once belonged to
Thomas Jefferson. Koch says the “Jefferson bottles” were
“The people who are counterfeiting are getting more
sophisticated as time goes by,” said Charles Curtis, head of
North American wine sales for Christie’s in New York. Christie’s
will refund a customer who suspects the purchased bottle is a
fake, he says.
“It definitely wasn’t an issue 10, 20 years ago,” Curtis
said. “But I don’t think it wasn’t being done, I just think it
was less well reported.”
For Related News and Information:
Christie’s stories: CTG LN CN BN
On technology and wine: TNI WINE TEC BN
Articles about auctions: NI AUCTION BN
Top technology news: TTOP
--With assistance from Elin McCoy. Editors: Nick Turner, Jeffrey
Taylor, Stephen West
To contact the reporter on this story:
Ryan Flinn in San Francisco at +1-415-617-7176 or
To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Tom Giles at +1-415-617-7223 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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