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Watch How an Expert Spots Fraudulent Wine

Distinctive labels and corks mark the truly valuable vintages

(BOBBY YIP/Reuters/Corbis)
smithsonian.com

Rare bottles of wine — like art — are coveted and command record-breaking valuations. This past fall, for example, a collection of Romanee-Conti Burgundy sold for the equivalent of $14,121 per bottle, making it the most valuable single wine lot sold at auction. With prices like that, wine fraud is a serious concern for the connoisseur with expensive tastes. Enter the "The Sherlock Holmes of Wine," Maureen Downey, who is a wine fraud investigator. She explains her work in a video from Bloomberg Business by Jennafer Savino and Amy Marino:

Downey’s first step is to assess any wine bottle closely. Her expert eyes can spot suspicious tells in the paper, ink and printing styles on the label or in the length of the cork. "You have to have looked at tens of millions of dollars of real wine to be able to spot a fake," she says.

What about the taste? Old wines do have a distinct character — an aroma of canned asparagus, apparently — but the most savvy wine counterfeiters can get around that. The notorious Rudy Kurniawan, a once a famous fine-wine dealer now serving time after being convicted for wine fraud, used to mix cheaper old wine in his fraudulent blends. Some of the bottles he used would have been expensive for the casual buyer, Ben Goldstein reports for NPR, but they were cheaper than the thousand of dollars he could get for the supposedly rare vintages. Besides, as Goldstien writes, "many of Kurniawan's artful fakes were probably never sipped or even opened. Wine collectors often view rare bottles as investments or trophies to be displayed."

Wine fraud is an old tradition, too. Apparently Pliny the Elder complained about the rampant fakery plaguing the wines of Rome, reports Kim Gittleson for BBC News. "Not even our nobility ever enjoys wines that are genuine," he wrote in his Natural History. "So low has our commercial honesty sunk that only the names of the vintages are sold, the wines being adulterated as soon they are poured into the vats. Accordingly, strange indeed as the remark may seem, the more common a wine is today, the freer it is from impurities."

So for those who can’t afford an expensive bottle, take comfort in the fact that at least the bottle probably contains what it says it does. Plus, it doesn’t come served with a side of pretension.

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