By Aymeric de Clouet
As a legal expert in wine matters, I feel that there is a need for clarification in the wine industry on the matters of counterfeiting. The first one would be: there is no such thing as a wine authentication expert.
A wine expert is someone who has an extensive knowledge of wine, wine areas, wine producers, changes in labels, foils, the history of glassmaking, etc. At the end of the day, a wine expert does not even need to taste wine, just like an expert in jewels does not dig out stones, or an expert in paintings does not necessary paint.
Like his colleagues for other objects, the wine expert spends his life learning all techniques, all stories of old, everything that can help him make an accurate statement about bottles. Because the expert’s job is threefold:
1. authentication assessment
3. assistance in selling
But the authentication assessment is not an authentication certificate, because no one can be sure that a bottle is authentic. Not even the châteaux and producers dare to confirm their own bottles. The utmost certainty they give is: “no element was found that could lead us to think the bottle was fake”.
And so is the limit of an expert’s mission settled.
An expert can declare that he found no element that was unlikely for the time period or the château considered.
An expert, on the other hand, can declare that a bottle is fake, to his opinion, for this or that reason. But even then, one must be cautious as to the definition of a fake bottle.
A bottle with the cork and the wine of origin, but with a label so destroyed that it was replaced by a copy, is this a fake? No. It does not have the same value than the original one, but it is not a fake. Someday, we should explain to wine collectors that it is extremely rare to have both perfect levels and labels. It happened to me only once in 25 years, in a fantastic château cellar near Rambouillet, that had all the right elements.
(Even if it is not the theme, I will give three elements to you: natural soil, high humidity, but flowing wind through two small windows that prevented humidity to remain stagnant. No concrete, no wood cases, no artificial temperature control…)
A bottle is fake as soon as the wine is transferred from its original bottle or the cork changed by anyone else than the château. Yes, but this does not go without problems: in the many decades when the châteaux accepted to change corks every 50 years, do you honestly believe that they would open a bottle from the same vintage to refill the natural loss of wine? Some châteaux took, for example, one bottle delivered to fill the others. Some others added glass balls to raise the level without adding wine. But many just added the wine of the year, thinking that it would do no harm, on the contrary it would “freshen up” the old juice. Hence some nuclear traces from younger vintages, in perfectly authentic bottles from pre-nuclear era. Same goes with younger foils and labels, for older vintages. Only Yquem kept for decades enough original material to recondition the old bottles with the exact same label and foil.
Understanding history helps to understand today’s world, and the priority of an expert is to know it. Of course, ignorance is bliss, and many people prefer certainty than doubt. Well, certainty is more comfortable, but it does not exist.
Let us take another example: it was common in the years before the end of French colonies to use some Algerian wine to “better” (i.e. to raise the level of alcohol, which was the main quality criteria at that time) in French wines. If we analyse some of those great wines today, we will find that they are not 100% Pinot Noir, but are they fake? A practice that dates back 80 years, that cannot be remedied, is it a fake from the expert’s point of view? It would be today, but it was hardly so at that time, there was even names for that. Same goes for the paintings’ expert when he has to say who, between the students and the master, painted the picture! It is not 100% the Master, but such was common practice at Renaissance time.
The life of a judicial expert is filled with those “judgment calls” when you have to explain to non-professionals the subtlety of wine knowledge. Explain, instead of dictate. Convince, not impose. Still, in the end, you can get real results: last year I could find enough proof during a Police investigation to have an auction in Britain stopped and a counterfeiter of old cognacs arrested. But in this case, it is the counterfeiter who lacked subtlety.