I hope you all read that in your best Don LaFontaine movie trailer voice, because that statement would only be true in a fictional movie about wine. There have, however, been a number of true stories on the topic of counterfeit wines in the past couple of months. Just recently Italian police discovered thirty thousand bottles of counterfeit wine claiming to be Brunello di Montalcino and Chianti, according to ABC News. And perhaps more famously, in December 2013, Wine Spectator reported that Rudy Kurniawan, a well-known trader in the wine world, was convicted of selling more than $20 million in fake wine. His story is so perfect for the big screen that just one month after his conviction decanter.com announced a documentary titled Sour Grapes was already being filmed. He was just recently sentenced to 10 years in prison and almost $30 million in restitution.
Despite how it may seem, however, wine counterfeiting is nothing new. I remember first reading about the counterfeit wine scene in a 2009 issue of Wine Spectator where the cover story featured billionaire wine collector Bill Koch. As of the writing of the article, Koch was involved in no less than five lawsuits against auction companies and individual sellers. [Watch a recent ABC News story about Bill Koch’s vendetta against wine fraud here.] In 2008 there were twenty or so Italian producers accused of producing counterfeit wine. And in 1985, several Austrian wine producers were found guilty of adding diethylene glycol--a sweet organic compound that is actually poisonous in large amounts--to their wines to make them sweeter and more full-bodied.
This brings us to why we’re talking about wine fraud. After all, most of us aren’t billionaire wine collectors who are worried about being swindled out of thousands, if not millions, of dollars. However, there is a place where wine fraud meets the everyday world. Ever since Roman times, the wine world has been fighting against fraud. My favorite punishment for a vintner who was found selling fraudulent wine occurred in the Middle Ages when a convicted winemaker was forced to drink all the fraudulent wine he made (Oxford Companion to Wine article on “Adulteration and Wine Fraud”). It wasn’t until 1937, though, that much was done about it. In that year, the town of Châteauneuf-du-Pâpe and its surrounding vineyards were officially protected by French law becoming the first Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée. The Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée, or AOC, system (translated as Controlled Designations of Origin, but we tend to just say “appellation”) is run by the French government and controls all manner of French products from wine to cheese to honey. The system regulates all sorts of things from production area to growing techniques to production quantities. There are over 300 French wine AOCs that regulate wine production. Each AOC is slightly different, but they all control at the very least: where wine can be made, how much wine can be made, how much alcohol is in the finished wine, what can be used to make the wine, and most importantly, what type of wine can be made. The AOC system is actually broken down into two main categories: AOC and Vin de Pays, or Country Wine. Both have regulations, but AOC is much stricter and, though there are certainly exceptions, is considered by most to be much better quality.
The European Union liked the AOC system so much that they adopted it as well. This means that any wine-producing country in Europe must use some version of the AOC system. In Italy it’s DOCG, in Germany QmP, but each country has their version. Following the Austrian Wine Scandal in 1985, Austria adopted its version of the AOC system called DAC (Districtus Austriae Controllatus).
We'll go into more detail about each country's laws governing wine production in Part 2 of Fake Wine.