Tag Archives: sole judicial wine expert

To be or not to be an authentication expert: that is the wrong question.

aymeric

 

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
2. evaluation
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.

Overstressed Wine Industry Can’t Believe Their Eyes.

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As sole judicial wine expert appointed by a high court, one of Aymeric de Clouet’s jobs is to authenticate wines, mostly on a confidential basis. Some cases are like international detective stories which have to be unravelled, and sometimes de Clouet enlists the help of other judicial experts from different fields of expertise. In France, the Paris High Court has appointed such a group of experts. They contribute to each other’s inquiry in their respective fields when necessary. The team includes a world papyrus expert and a former head of the Musée du Louvre. De Clouet is the wine expert.

Here is an article about de Clouet’s experience and his opinion regarding wine fraud. You may find it interesting.

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Last year, I was approached by a Singaporean wine merchant desperate to know about a bottle of Romanée-Conti 1929 that he considered fake, because its label was printed with pixels which didn’t exist at that time.

I asked them to bring the bottle back to France for me to examine. The pictures on my computer definitely showing pixels, which is fairly natural, on a screen. We then examined it together, and the whole bottle seemed to me to conform perfectly to what it was supposed to be. Old used foil, old glass, old label.

It was apparently not enough for my client, who kept insisting on the pixel-like printing. “Can’t you see, can’t you see, it’s obvious, it’s pixels”. I did not see, the whole label seemed fairly typical of the time period. So we asked for the assistance of a judicial expert in old paper since all other elements were now cleared. She confirmed that the quality of paper, the printing technique and all details were at least 70-80 years old. At the end of the day, not a single element of the bottle had given any reason for suspecting fraud, but a lot of fuss had been made.

It reminds me of a story told to me at one of the greatest estates in Bordeaux about a self- appointed wine expert who likes to have fake bottles destroyed, which would be ok if not for the fact that she does make people destroy perfectly good bottles, simply because she does not know what older bottles look like. In the post-war France, not all bottles looked alike, even within the same estate, and even in the same case of wine. At that time, nobody envisaged that someday wines would make such high prices, and that a single bottle could be worth a month’s salary or more. Châteaux did not pay the attention to detail that they do today. And let us not speak about Burgundy. They started to print corks in the 90’s!

The current wave of newspaper articles and TV reports, plus on-line articles does raise the level of fear regarding counterfeiting. Rightly so: after Kurniawan’s scandal, and some others that are not to be discussed (I am sworn to secrecy on the cases where I was consulted as an expert), it is true that the level of fake bottles has risen. It is only natural, since the value of wine has never been so high, as well as the ignorance of buyers, who collect wines as a sign of status.

Most fakes remain easy enough to spot. Others need a bit of knowledge. The infamous Kurniawan could sell Romanée-Conti 1945 jeroboams without raising an eyebrow in the US, while everyone knows that only 600 bottles (75 cl) were produced. Some years ago, a big international auction house listed a 1947 from the same estate – which was never produced. Recently, another auction house in the UK listed cognacs from different years and various producers, all with the same cork and foil; another listed magnums of Cheval-Blanc ’53, with neutral foil, never used there.

As so-called specialists let many fakes through, one still needs to be careful. But this is not a good reason enough to believe that there are no real treasures still to be had, provided they are bought from reliable sources and appropriately vetted