Wine Fraud: What's in Your Bottle?
Written by Jennifer Jordan
Filed Under: Wine Collecting
When I was little, my grandmother had a grapevine on the fence that separated her house from her neighbor's house. My sisters and I spent hours arguing with the boys next door; we said the vine was ours and they said it was theirs. The grapes, we reasoned, were on our side of the fence, but the vine, they said, was rooted on their side. This argument went on for months, until the grapevine eventually died, leaving the grapes wilted and shriveled. When this happened, knowing the vine was worthless, I told the boys next door that they could have the grapevine if they gave me their yo-yo. They agreed and I ran off with my new toy. Unbeknownst at the time, I had just committed a pseudo-form of wine fraud.
Wine fraud, by definition, is a type of fraud where customers are sold wine illegally. Like a grape known for being seedy or a vineyard known for being shady, wine fraud has the potential to spoil the wine lover's spirit. This wine is sometimes filled with chemicals that can cause sickness or it is cheap wine sold for prices much higher than it's worth. While it may seem that wine fraud is limited to wines sold in back alleys, or out of the trunks of beaten down cars, many cases of wine fraud are sold by seemingly legit vendors. You may have been a victim of wine fraud and never even realize it.
This type of fraud can have many faces, with one being label fraud. During this, labels of pricey wines are adhered to non-expensive bottles and sold as if they are the real thing. Just as fake Cuban cigars often contain real Cuban cigar labels, fake bottles of Chateau Lafite often contain real Chateau Lafite labels. This leads people to pay extreme amounts of money for bottles of wine that may be filled with something as cheap as Mad Dog.
As with many fraudulent operations, label fraud often involves a large number of people. With organization that mirrors a car theft ring, this fraud brings several people together with the intent of labeling unknowing consumers "ripped off." In 2000, for example, authorities in Italy uncovered a warehouse filled with close to twenty thousand bottles of inexpensive wine adorned with 1995 Sassicaia Super Tuscan labels.
One the other end of the fraudulent spectrum, wine fraud can also involve mixing toxic chemicals with wine, a combination that can be potentially fatal. This may be performed in an attempt to increase the alcohol content of a low-alcohol wine or to make a type of wine more flavorful. When wine sellers or makers engage in this type of wine fraud, they are gambling with more than just scamming people out of their money: they are also gambling with people's lives. In 1986, an Italian winemaker mixed wood alcohol with his wine to increase the wine's potency. This resulted in the death of 23 people.
Perhaps the most common type of wine fraud is wine blending, an act that blends cheaper wine with more expensive wine and passes the wine off as authentic. This can involve a variety of wines. Wine makers, for example, have been caught blending everything from a cheap Rioja wine with Bordeaux to an expensive red Burgundy with inferior wine and selling the bottles at an inflated price.
To prevent wine fraud from ruining the industry, many of the world's major wine producers have begun taking preventative action. One preventive action involves placing serial numbers on bottles of wine, serial numbers that prove the wine's authenticity and value. This, unfortunately, does not provide protection for older wines, wine that were bottled years ago.
For you, the consumer, preventive action must also be practiced. Understanding that wine fraud exists is the first step in making sure you're never given a bottle that is blended, filled with toxic chemicals, or worth much less that you pay. If the label is particularly old looking, and appears that it is has been taken off another bottle and placed on yours, it's best to stay away from it. It is also best to only buy wine from reputed dealers; if the wine seller also asks you if you want to buy a watch, it's best to turn away. And, most importantly, never give up your yo-yo for a lousy old grapevine.