I don’t want to get all Neal Martin here but Alexander O’Neal’s “Fake” is a candidate for the defining song of my late youth. “Left To My Own Devices” by the Pet Shop Boys is right up there too. And a lot of INXS. The memory fades, but I’d like to think it was “Fake” that was in my ears as we rifled through the College Road tollgate at 70 miles per hour. Now those were the days. They really were.
Cars were important. 70 mph through the tollgate was either in “the Pocket Rocket” that was my Citroen AX GT or, more likely, the sheer brilliance that was my 1979 Honda Civic. And the Old Man’s Renault 25. Surely the only such car to have left the ground over the Huntslip Road railway bridge. Probably with the Pet Shop Boys on because the stereo in the 25 was, well, wicked. Sorry, Dad.
About a quarter of a century later and the story has changed. I’m getting up at 7am on a Sunday instead of going to bed at 7am on a Sunday. I’m dreaming of buying a Dacia. I think that just about sums it up. And whenever I hear or even think of the word “fake” I hear Alex O’Neal. And I smile.
But back to the point. I’ve been talking about fake wines for a decade now. Mostly to journalists. There are two wine-related subjects that turn journalists on: wine investment and wine fraud. Many have missed the fact that “wine investment” was a story ten years ago – a bus that has long passed the stop. Though wine fraud, particularly the “faking” of expensive bottles, is the bus that is just approaching. You can see it in the distance but not quite well enough to decipher the number on the front. And this deciphering is half the problem. How do you spot a fake wine?
Well some are obvious. If you’ve ever owned a Rolex you’ll know how it should feel on your wrist. You’ll also know how an expensive watch should feel on your wrist. Your gut instinct when you put on something bought in Pat Pong will be correct. It’s not so much about the correct font on the “Officially Certified” bit, it’s about the general feel. Likewise the holograph sticker on the back. Wear your Roller on a regular basis and it will come off. So a well-worn Roller with the sticker still on? Nope, not for me. But maybe that was just my one…
Timekeeping. This is sort of like a tasting note. You would imagine that three or four grand’s worth of chronometer on your wrist would keep the time. Nope. If you want accurate time then buy a Casio. And if you want deep, rich wine with gobs of glycerine, get yerself some 2007 Chateauneuf, not 1961 Pomerol.
Someone who knows what they’re talking about (and likes music as well as wine) said to me, and I both edit and paraphrase: “if you read a note on a fifty year old Pomerol and it talks about weight, fat, deep colour and chunky fruit, then it’s a fake”. Because fifty year old Pomerol doesn’t taste like five year old Pavie. And mechanical watches don’t keep time as well as quartz watches.
Labels. How tricky is it to replicate a label? I’ve seen some fairly impressive counterfeit money and, as most people who have worked in the retail trade will tell you, it’s all about the paper, and the feel of the paper. Take that away and it’s a walk in the park. I hope you can see my point here. And you can’t hold a bottle of red up to the light to seek the watermark.
The challenges then are clear. And fake wine does exist. But what I’ve been telling people for the past ten years is that the whole fake wine story is just that: a story. Yes, there are fake wines knocking about but the noise that the press make about it is considerably more than the problem warrants. But now I’m not so sure. And it’s not the old stuff that I’m worried about.
An old fake is relatively easy to spot. Because you can’t photocopy age; you can’t print it. And a bit of research online will often show you that bottles of 1982 Lafleur almost all have glue-stained labels – so why don’t the ones you’ve been offered? And if you’re offered large format 1961 Pomerol, then you really should just laugh and walk away in nearly all instances.
But 2009 Petrus? Just under thirty grand a case. What is stopping me from buying a case of 2009 Gazin and taking the labels off? And sticking some new Petrus ones on, straight off the printer? And what about Cros Parantoux from Rouget? Erm … a case of Beauxmonts Grivot please. No, make that Petit Monts Jadot. And my photocopier. Done. And even if you open the bottle you won’t be sure – tastes like Vosne … vintage is right … definitely from the top of the slope …
And who will help you verify something? Even the estates that made the wine don’t want to know in some cases, or get it wrong when they do help. Bear in mind that you are almost always dealing with the French here and, whilst buying a dog in France almost certainly requires about three different bits of paperwork stamped by the Mayor (and – off-piste fact – you can’t give it a “human” name), an enormous amount of French business is conducted “on the black”, which is to say, without the paperwork and the tax. So ask a domaine for a bill of sale from ten years ago and you’ll just get laughed or, more likely, shrugged at.
My Dad has one of the best lines ever for initiating serious conversation: “What is it that you don’t want to talk about?” It’s genius. Ask any serious fine wine merchant the same question and the answer will be fake bottles. They might not admit it, mind, but I reckon it’s true. Because the sad fact is that this isn’t just an elephant in the room, it’s a suicide bomber of an elephant if you’re a merchant. And the one that gets through isn’t going to be the one you’re looking out for, it’s going to be the saddo setting light to his underpants. And because journalists just love the whole fake wine thing (largely because they love the ridiculous idea of a bottle of wine being worth thousands) then the bombing will be heavily covered. And the merchant will be shamed. This is genuinely scary stuff if you are in the business.
But here’s a thing. I know just one, perhaps two, wine buyers (I mean customers) in the UK who would drop a few thousand pounds on a bottle of 61 Lafleur just to taste it. Both as rich as Croesus and both wine nuts (and, interestingly enough, both hugely generous with the contents of their respective cellars). My point being that the buyers of these bottles are for the most part buying for financial gain. Speculating. And speculating on old bottles of Pomerol or Grand Cru Burgundy really is “Abe’s Sardines” if your only interest is financial rather than the juice in the bottle. And the reason why these rare bottles fetch such silly sums is more to do with speculation (and occasionally vanity): the capital appreciation of a bottle rather than the sensual appreciation of its contents. So don’t they deserve what they get? Fine wine has been monetised to the extent that it is worth trying to counterfeit it.
Money: I’d love more of it but I hate what it does to the things that I love.