A Tale of Wine Incompetence, Crookery and Comedy
This is a tale of incompetence, crookery, fraud and good old fashioned comedy:
1978 Romanee Conti
“I immediately knew that the 1978 Romanée Conti was counterfeit and that there were four significant things wrong with it…First, and most obviously, the Romanee Conti wine had a plain red capsule. Second, the bottle itself has embossed glass – it says “Domaine de la Romanée Conti” at the bottom of the glass. That immediately told me this bottle is fake because none of the 1978 DRC wines have embossed glass. The only vintage which ever had that embossed glass was the 1974 vintage. So obviously someone took bottles of 1974 DRC something and turned them into 1978 Romanée Conti.”
1952 DRC Romanee Conti
“The brown wax capsule on this bottle of 1952 is the first clue that there’s something wrong – 1952 in 750 ml shouldn’t have a wax capsule at all, let alone a brown one.”
1962 DRC Romanee Conti
“The pristine snow white main label and neck label with the beat up old wrinkled capsule (which has the wrong color printing – the text on the capsule should be grey not white) makes no sense.”
1919 Rousseau Grand Chambertin Vieux Plants
“These Wines are 100% Fake…Rousseau did not own any vines in Chambertin until 1920. This is directly stated on Rousseau’s website.”
1961 Petrus Magnum
“Rather blatantly fake. It bears no resemblance to any authentic 1961 Petrus Magnum I’ve ever seen. To start with, the capsule is the wrong color….The label is also completely incorrect. Notably, it lacks the words ‘Cru Exceptionnel'”
On their own the above descriptions of particular bottles of wine read like a careful explanation of doubtful authenticity. But when you realized that these are descriptions of auction lots about to go under the hammer within 48 hours in a well publicized wine auction and that these descriptions of the lots were published on an Internet Wine Forum called “Wine Berserkers“, you begin to appreciate the comical nature of not just these notes, but of the wine auction world in general.
Baghera Auctions, a relatively new auction house out of Geneva, was about to conduct an auction of a spectacular collection of wine filled with a remarkable number (over 1,400 bottles) of DRC wines, highly collectible Bordeaux including extremely old d’Yquem as well as a few other collectibles. The collection of wine, entitled in the auction catalog as “Master Cellar”, was said to come from a single Swiss collector.
Less than 48 hours before the beginning of the Baghera auction, American attorney, Burgundy expert and semi-professional wine counterfeit sleuth Don Cornwell posted a very long, very detailed explanation of why many of the wines in this auction were “clearly counterfeit”, “highly suspect” or “required serious explanation”.
The first thing that occurs to you when you read Cornwell’s long explanation of the dubious authenticity of many wines in the auction is “WOW…This guy knows a lot of minutia about a lot of wine and he put a lot of work into this.” Cornwell is, after all, the guy who finally exposed Rudy Kurniawan just prior to his arrest. The second thing that occurs to you is why the hell is this information posted on an Internet wine forum called “Wine Berserkers”. This is clearly a document that should have been prepared by the auction house and delivered (probably by hand by someone with a sufficiently dour expression) to the “single Swiss collector” who is selling the wine.
Well, it turns out this information WAS delivered by Cornwell to the head of Baghera Auctions, Michael Ganne, seven days in advance of it being posted at Wine Berserkers, and nine days in advance of the auction. The response to Mr. Cornwell?
“’the Domaine [DRC] has been involved and came already in the cellar to look at the wines. Of course the Domaine is aware of this sale, I talk to them quite often … – they have already inspected the wines but I am happy to double check with them.’ With respect to the Yquem wines Mr. Ganne insisted that ‘Again the Château know his wines collection well and I am in touch with them.’”
Interestingly, there is no indication in this response that either DRC or Yquem gave their blessing to the bottles. In the end, only six lots were pulled from the auction, which occurred on May 22. This despite the fact that Cornwell identified 19 lots that contained wines that were “outright counterfeit” and 30-40 other lots that contained wines about which Cornwell and his colleagues “had questions – some of them quite serious.”
Armed with this context, the reader really must go back and read Don Cornwell’s long post at Wine Berserkers. It unveils a truly comical amount of incompetence and crookery not only within the wine auction industry but also among the counterfeiters that are clearly still plying their trade with gusto.
On the one hand, consider that Baghera Auctions had the opportunity to look these fraudulent bottles straight in the label and didn’t deny them entry into their auction, while Cornwell, thousands of miles away, was able to clearly identify them as counterfeit by looking at a pdf of the auction catalog.
Consider that the explanation of these flawed bottles didn’t show up in a report by Baghera Auctions to the seller, but rather on an Internet wine forum called “Wine Berserkers” just two days before the auction.
Consider that somewhere in the world a wine counterfeiter thought his job was well done upon completing the creation of faux bottle of 1961 Petrus that didn’t include on the label the words “Cru Exceptionnel”.
It’s the fucking Keystone Cops and Laurel & Hardy all rolled into one.
At this point, I again must urge my readers to go back to the Wine Berserker post by Cornwell and read it carefully. It’s not only very interesting and highly enlightening, but, as I’ve said, it’s downright comical. Consider this Cornwell comment concerning Lot #294, a collection of six bottles of 1959 Comte de Vogüé Musigny VV:
“when the 1959 vintage was released there were no vineyard-designated capsules [as exist on these six wines] – just the plain red ones with domaine embossing on the top. The vineyard designated capsules did not begin until the 1971 vintage.”
I mean really! This is comedy gold that can only be explained by the kind of supreme incompetence that you expect from a scene from the film, “Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure.”
So, what do we know? Well, for one it’s pretty clear that the “experts” at Baghera Auctions are either incompetent or crooks. We also know that counterfeiters are alive and well and also incompetent.
With regard to the auction house and the counterfeiters, whether crooks or incompetent, we know they are both idiots. If the people at Baghera Auctions are merely incompetent we can excuse them for not catching all the suspicious bottles. After all, they are incompetent. But come on: “Rousseau did not own any vines in Chambertin until 1920. This is directly stated on Rousseau’s website.” Idiots! And if they are crooks, they somehow believed that in the age of the Internet no one would notice these forgeries located in plain sight in their online catalog. Again, idiots. Then there are the counterfeiters: “The label is also completely incorrect. Notably, it lacks the words ‘Cru Exceptionnel'” Is there no pride of workmanship anymore or did they think no one would notice the lack of the words “Cru Exceptionnel” that should have been smack in the middle of the 1961 Petrus label. Idiots!
I don’t know jack about authenticating rare and collectible wines. I worked at an online auction house where I was head of marketing for a couple of years and never had any involvement in the review of wines that came into the warehouse for auction. I couldn’t have caught the discrepancies outlined by Cornwell. And I certainly couldn’t taste an old Burgundy or Bordeaux and tell you if it was authentic. I’ve purchased wines at commercial auctions, but even then I was bottom feeding for cheap, older California bottlings. Again, I don’t know jack about wine authentication. But I do know this:
- People are spending thousands if not hundreds of thousands of dollars on wine forgeries
- The folks that run Baghera Auctions are either crooks or incompetent.
- Counterfeiters remain active participants in the wine auction market even in this “Post-Rudy” world.
- There are some auction houses and wine retailers who are knowingly selling very suspicious wines
- The wine auction market is a buyer-beware environment in which buyers must protect themselves.
A good portion of those who play in the high-end Bordeaux and Burgundy auction markets are not merely members of the 1%, but they are the ones that give the 1% their marching orders. If I were them, and knowing what I know, I would put the likes of Don Cornwell and Maureen Downey of Chai Consulting and WineFraud.com on my payroll. I’d pay them very, very handsomely to look closely at every wine auction catalog that comes down the pike in the future and at a number of catalogs from auctions performed over the past five years and have them identify every potentially fraudulent wine ever sold and make public what the wine was and who sold it.
The kind of wine fraud that took place at the Baghera Auction won’t stop until the buyers take matters into their own hands and demand it stop.
Great piece! I read something about this somewhere else, but didn’t really pay attention. It’s pretty astonishing what happened. Fortunately, I don’t have the kind of money that would enable me to bid on such wines. Although I’d like to believe I wouldn’t get fooled.