How Wine Fraud Works

The Art of Wine Fraud

To fake an expensive wine, you have two options: tamper with the bottle or mess with the wine inside. For the first method, you can buy bottles of perfectly good wine and plaster on the label of a much better one. Sometimes all you have to do is replace one digit of the vintage year or blur a few numbers on the aging cork.

For the second method, the bottle is legit, but the wine is fake. There is a brisk business on eBay in empty wine bottles from exceptional vintages like a 1982 Chateau Lafite-Rothschild [source: Goldstein]. Once you possess a real bottle, the trick is to mix up a convincing cocktail of quality Bordeaux and a shot or two of California red to pass the sniff-and-spit test.

Even better, many collectors view their most expensive bottles as too precious to drink. As long as the bottle passes muster, the con artist is in the clear.

Wine fraud is not an exact science like reverse engineering a $500 iPad and selling it in China as a $17 iPud. The experience of drinking wine is extraordinarily subjective and greatly influenced by the name on the label, the experienced (or inexperienced) palate of the drinker, and the price paid for the bottle.

Given the extreme subjectivity of wine, a successful wine forger must sell more than a convincing label or even an excellent tasting wine; he must sell himself as an avid collector and trusted wine expert. That's the best way to create the illusion that the $10,000 bottle in your hand is not a well-packaged fraud, but the "priceless" real deal.

Successful con artists throw lavish marathon wine-tastings and Dionysian dinner parties in private rooms at the most exclusive restaurants. It's no coincidence that the most expensive bottles are often uncorked at the end of the night, when the guests are too loaded to know the difference between a 1945 Mouton and a boxed Bordeaux from Costco [source: Keefe].

Next we'll look at two of the most brazen cases of wine fraud.