In the late ’70’s Robert Parker started publishing The Wine Advocate. At first, it was sent out on copied paper, then, as it gained in popularity (and he began to rate more wines), Parker began publishing it in booklet form. The ‘hook’ of Parker was his 100-point rating system that TB has discussed here (Vol. 3 No. 16), and how, due to imitators, it has flooded the market with raters. Parker is clear about what he looks for in a wine, others not so much.
In contrast to the 20 point U.C. Davis system, which is a ‘quality’ measurement, and not intended to pit one wine or winemaker against another, the 100-point system(s) are highly subjective with from 15-25 points being subjective. This, and wine economics, has led to more and more wines with a 90 rating by at least one evaluator. As I discussed in that article and Vol. 3 No 14, you had better know what the rater looks for in a wine and determine if it meshes with your likes and dislikes. Who cares if Parker or anyone else likes it if you and your friends don’t. Sometimes you can buy two bottles of a high 80’s wine for the price of one 90 point wine…think about it!
The 1982 Bordeaux vintage was panned by writer William Finnegan, and then Parker challenged him by praising it in a move that would put Mr. Parker in the echelons of wine critics. As a result, TB was fortunate enough to buy a mixed case of futures (the store never offered that option again and I don’t think anyone else has), of mostly 2nd Cru wines. I stored them in my cellar and when discussing wine with a friend, he mentioned he had bought the ’82’s and recently opened one and didn’t think it was that good. I did the same and again it didn’t appeal to me as anything extraordinary. So in the early 2000’s I took many of my older wines to Butterfield and Butterfield in San Francisco and was pleasantly surprised about what they and a few other collectables sold for (’84 Heitz Martha’s Vineyard and a ’92 Screaming Eagle among others)…very pleased! In retrospect, I should have held on for a few more years but when you are talking about 1,000 percent returns, don’t quibble!
Then there is the fact that really old collectables not only don’t usually taste vibrant but they may be flat or worse, corked! I have had very few wines I loved that were older unless they came from the cellar of the winemaker, having not been transported (except to the tasting), and stored properly. As an old bartender used to say, “drink up, this ain’t no library!”
Then there is the growing problem of wine fraud. In the early ’70’s Bordeaux wines were incredibly cheap due to the ‘Italian Salad Oil’ scandal. Cheap wine was put in phony Bordeaux bottles and dumped on the market. Then, l’affaire du Pouilly Fuisse, where one of the top wine houses in France was bottling plonk under that name.
Two of the most famous fraudsters of late were Hardy Rodenstock and Rudy Kirniawan. The former was the best in creating authentic looking labels and filling the bottles with recent vintages of the same wine (smart), while the latter had a great pallette and would ‘blend’ wines to resemble the authentic wine. As if that wasn’t bad enough, it took some time before the auction houses, including Christie’s, caught on…or acknowledged any suspicions on the provenance of the wines. With any serious research they could have known, especially with Rodenstock’s greatest faux creation, the 1787 Chateau Lafite with the initials “Th. J.” on them. Not one, but dozens of these were ultimately sold and purchased by Malcolm Forbes, Bill Koch, and other wine experts. But the person most responsible for uncovering fraud was Laurent Ponsot, owner of Domaine Ponsot, who attended an auction featuring his Burgundies, and noted that one of the wines was a year before he started producing wine (makes you wonder if when is successful as a conman, forger, etc. the temptation to “get cute” is just too great, no?). So it is to Monsieur Ponsot and especially Bill Koch, that the wine world owes a big debt.
Ah, and here is another trick being done of late: purposely filling the bottles with ‘corked’ wine so it is even harder to tell if it is authentic and if it doesn’t taste right simply chalk it up to experience. Note that recently a huge Cotes du Rhone fraud was uncovered in France, meaning not just expensive collectables are subject to manipulation and fraud.
The inspiration for this piece came from TB’s favorite wine writer, Lettie Teague, who writes a weekly column in the Wall Street Journal. She is sensible, expresses herself well without putting on airs, and is creative and dedicated to the enjoyment of wine. See her two-part piece on wine fraud in the WSJ: What it takes to out sleuth wine fraud.
That’s all, folks!
(c) traderbillonwine 2018
If you are interested in some fascinating stories on wine fraud, TB recommends:
Dinkelspiel, Frances: Tangled Vines: Greed, Murder, and an Arsonist in the Vineyards of California
Potter, Maximillian: Shadows in the Vineyard – extortion of Domaine Romanee-Conti
Wallace, Benjamin: The Billionaire’s Vinegar – The Jefferson Ch. Lafite
Not related, but a fascinating story of wine deception against the Germans in WWII by the French Underground:
Don & Petie Kladstrup: Wine and War
Isabelle Saporta: VINO Business, The Cloudy World of French Wine you might never want to buy another Bordeaux after reading this…especially if you believe in sustainable wine