How Wine Fraud Works

Detecting and Preventing Wine Fraud

High-end wineries are using a special seal with a bubble pattern on the bottle to prevent wine fraud. The bubble pattern can be matched on the Prooftag website to make sure the wine is authentic.
High-end wineries are using a special seal with a bubble pattern on the bottle to prevent wine fraud. The bubble pattern can be matched on the Prooftag website to make sure the wine is authentic.
© Brant Ward/San Francisco Chronicle/Corbis

Jim Elroy learned about a nuclear physicist in France who might hold the key to unlocking the true age of the wine inside the Jefferson Bottles. The physicist, Philippe Hubert, is an expert in dating objects by detecting levels of cesium-137, a radioactive isotope of the element that didn't exist before the explosion of the first atomic bombs over Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945. If the Jefferson Bottles are as old as Rodenstock claimed they were, the grapes used to make the wine should not contain any cesium-137. Hubert had used this method to debunk several other supposedly ancient wines [source: Keefe].

For Koch, though, cesium-137 wasn't the smoking gun. The test showed no radioactive elements, meaning the wine was produced before 1945. But 160 years before 1945? The killer clue turned out to be on the bottle, not in it. Consulting glass and tool experts, Elroy concluded that the etching of "Th.J" on the bottles could only have been done by modern dentist's drills, not 18th-century copper wheels [source: Keefe]. Koch sued Rodenstock, but the German citizen claimed immunity from U.S. prosecution and continues to collect and sell wine as of 2014.

High-profile con men aren't the only wine fraudsters in on the game. Knockoff outfits in China are selling cases of counterfeit product supposedly from high-end California wineries, and legions of smaller con artists are flooding the auction circuit with fakes. One wine expert believes that 80 percent of pre-1980 Burgundies sold at auction are counterfeit [source: Steinberger].

To protect their investment and calm jittery buyers, some wineries are investing in technology that authenticates their bottles. A company called Prooftag sells a product that creates a one-of-a-kind "bubble seal" — like a fingerprint — on the neck of the bottle [source: Gannon]. The bubble pattern, along with a scannable QR code, tracks the bottle back to the winery. Another company, Applied DNA Sciences, can embed invisible, encrypted DNA tags into the wine's label. The DNA information cannot be replicated or even detected by counterfeiters [source: ADNAS].

Further, the California label Opus One has invested in a tamper-proof capsule that changes color once the bottle has been opened. There's also a chip on the back label that can be scanned with a smartphone to give information on the wine as well as its precise location. [source: Stephens].

But all of this new technology isn't much use to collectors like Koch, who crave bottles from the pre-digital age. For his part, the retired billionaire doesn't dwell much on being duped. As Koch said in a 2007 article about the Jefferson Bottles in The New Yorker, "I used to brag that I got the Thomas Jefferson wines. Now I get to brag that I have the fake Thomas Jefferson wines."

Author's Note: How Wine Fraud Works

I love that experiment where 57 wine drinkers strongly preferred the wine from the fancy bottle over the exact same wine with the generic label. It speaks to human nature and the many ways that our expectations and assumptions interfere with the way our senses process the sights, smells and tastes around us.

That might explain why Robert Parker, the world's most famous wine critic, gushed about the intensely aged flavor of an uncorked Jefferson Bottle, giving it a perfect 100 points, even though the wine was almost certainly a modern concoction mixed up by fraudster Hardy Rodenstock. The "history" of the wine was more powerful than any taste bud. Which makes me wonder, does it really matter if wine is counterfeit? Does it prevent the owner from experiencing the joy of owning a rare delicacy and the thrill of uncorking it for a very special occasion? Not unless you know it's a fake, in which case, maybe it's better not to ask.

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  • Applied DNA Sciences. "SigNature DNA" (Aug. 15, 2014)
  • Forbes. "The World's Billionaires: #393 William Koch" (Aug. 15, 2014)
  • Gannon, Suzanne. "New Ways to Fight Counterfeiters." Wines & Vines. Sept. 2009 (Aug. 15, 2014)
  • Gardiner, Sean; and Sharp, Sonja. "Counterfeit Fine-Wine Dealer Sentenced to 10 Years." The Wall Street Journal. Aug. 7, 2014 (Aug. 15, 2014)
  • Goldstein, Robin. "Are Empty Wine Bottles on eBay Being Used for Counterfeiting?" Freakonomics. June 26, 2009 (Aug. 15, 2014)
  • Keefe, Patrick Radden. "The Jefferson Bottles." The New Yorker. Sept. 3, 2007 (Aug. 15, 2014)
  • Nelson, Davia; and Silva, Nikki. "How Atomic Particles Helped Solve a Wine Fraud Mystery." NPR. June 3, 2014 (Aug. 15, 2014)
  • Steinberger, Michael. "A Vintage Crime." Vanity Fair. July 2012 (Aug. 15, 2014)
  • Stephens, Dustin. "Counterfeit wine: A vintage crime." CBS News. Dec. 22, 2013 (Aug. 15, 2014)
  • Susman, Tina. "Wine fraudster, Rudy Karniawan, once an L.A. name, gets 10 years." Los Angeles Times. Aug. 7, 2014 (Aug. 15, 2014)