come back often as we keep on adding other great cooking tips!
| What Constitutes
a Great Wine?
excerpetd from Parker's
Wine Buyer's Guide 6th Edition: The Complete, Easy-to-Use Reference
on Recent Vintages, Prices, and Ratings for More Than 8,000 Wines
from All the Major Wine Regions
Copyright © 1995, 1999, 2002 by Robert M. Parker, Jr.
Collectors versus Consumers
I have reluctantly come to believe that many of France's greatest
wine treasures -- the first growths of Bordeaux, including the famous
sweet nectar made at Château d'Yquem, Burgundy's most profound
red wines from the Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, and virtually
all of the wines from the tiny white wine appellation of Montrachet
-- are never drunk or, should I say, swallowed. Most of us who purchase
or cellar wine do so on the theory that eventually every one of
our splendid bottles will be swirled, sloshed, sniffed, sipped,
and, yes, guzzled, with friends. That, of course, is one of the
joys of wine, and those of you who partake of this pleasure are
true wine lovers. There are, however, other types of wine collectors
-- the collector-investor, the collector-spitter, and even the nondrinking
Several years ago I remember being deluged with telephone calls
from a man wanting me to have dinner with him and tour his private
cellar. After several months of resisting, I finally succumbed.
A very prominent businessman, he had constructed an impressive cellar
beneath his sprawling home. It was enormous and immaculately kept,
with state-of-the-art humidity and temperature controls. I suspect
it contained in excess of 10,000 bottles. There were cases of such
thoroughbreds as Pétrus, Lafite-Rothschild, Mouton-Rothschild,
and rare vintages of the great red Burgundies such as Romanée-Conti
and La Tache, and to my astonishment there were also hundreds of
cases of 10- and 15-year-old Beaujolais, Pouilly-Fuissé,
Dolcetto, and California Chardonnays -- all wines that should have
been drunk during their first 4 or 5 years of life. I diplomatically
suggested that he should inventory his cellar, as there seemed to
be a number of wines that mandated immediate consumption.
About the time I spotted the fifth or sixth case of what was undoubtedly
10-year-old Beaujolais vinegar, I began to doubt the sincerity of
my host's enthusiasm for wine. These unthinkable doubts (I was much
more naive then than I am now) were amplified at dinner. As we entered
the sprawling kitchen and dining room complex, he proudly announced
that neither he nor his wife actually drank wine, and then asked
if I would care for a glass of mineral water, iced tea -- or, if
I preferred, a bottle of wine. During my sorrowful drive home that
evening, I lamented the fact that I had not opted for the mineral
water. For when I made the mistake of requesting wine with the meal,
my host proceeded to grab a bottle of wine that one of his friends
suggested should be consumed immediately. It was a brown-colored,
utterly repugnant, senile Bordeaux from 1969, perhaps the worst
vintage in the last 25 years. Furthermore, the château was
a notorious underachiever from the famous commune of Pauillac. The
wine he chose does not normally merit buying in a good vintage,
much less a pathetic one. I shall never forget my host opening the
bottle and saying, "Well, Bob, this wine sure smells good."
Regrettably, this nondrinking collector continues to buy large
quantities of wine, not for investment, and obviously not for drinking.
The local wine merchants tell me his type is not rare. To him, a
collection of wine is like a collection of crystal, art, sculpture,
or china -- something to be admired, to be shown off, but never,
ever to be consumed.
More ostentatious by far is the collector-spitter, who thrives
on gigantic tastings where 50, 60, sometimes even 70 or 80 vintages
of great wines, often from the same château, can be "tasted."
Important members of the wine press are invited (at no charge, of
course) in the hope that this wine happening will receive a major
article in the The New York or Los Angeles Times, and the collector's
name will become recognized and revered in the land of winedom.
These collector-spitters relish rubbing elbows with famous proprietors
and telling their friends, "Oh, I'll be at Château Lafite-Rothschild
next week to taste all of the château's wines between 1870
and 1987. Sorry you can't be there." I have, I confess, participated
in several of these events and have learned from the exercise of
trying to understand them that their primary purpose is to feed
the sponsor's enormous ego, and often the château's ego as
I am not against academic tastings where a limited number of serious
wine enthusiasts sit down to taste 20 or 30 different wines (usually
young ones), because that is a manageable number that both neophytes
and connoisseurs can generally grasp. But to taste 60 or more rare
and monumental vintages at an eight- or twelve-hour tasting marathon
is excessive. To put it simply, what happens at these tastings is
that much of the world's greatest, rarest, and most expensive wines
are spit out. No wine taster I have ever met could conceivably remain
sober, even if only the greatest wines were swallowed. I can assure
you, there is only remorse in spitting out a 1929 or 1945 Mouton-Rothschild.
Recollections of these events have long troubled me. I vividly
remember one tasting held at a very famous restaurant in Los Angeles
where a number of compelling bottles from one of France's greatest
estates were opened. Many of them were exhilarating. Yet, whether
it was the otherworldly 1961 or the opulent 1947, the reactions
I saw on the faces of those 40 or so people, each of whom had paid
several thousand dollars to attend, made me wonder whether we were
tasting 50 different vintages of France's greatest wines or 50 bottles
of Pepto-Bismol. Fortunately, the organizer did appear to enjoy
the gathering and appreciate the wines, but among the guests I never
once saw a smile or any enthusiasm or happiness in the course of
this extraordinary 12-hour tasting.
I remember another marathon tasting held in France by one of Europe's
leading collector-spitters, which lasted all day and much of the
night. There were over 90 legendary wines served, and midway through
the afternoon I was reasonably certain there was not a sober individual
remaining except for the chef and his staff. By the time the magnum
of 1929 Mouton-Rothschild was served (one of the century's greatest
wines), I do not think there was a guest left, myself included,
who was competent enough to know whether he was drinking claret
I have also noticed at these tastings that many collector-spitters
did not even know when a bottle was corked (had the smell of moldy
cardboard and was defective), or when a bottle was oxidized and
undrinkable, proving the old saying that money does not always buy
good taste. Of course, most of these tastings are media happenings
designed to stroke the host's vanity. All too frequently they undermine
the principle that wine is a beverage of pleasure, and that is my
The third type of collector, the investor, is motivated by the
possibility of reselling the wines for profit. Eventually, most
or all of these wines return to the marketplace, and much of it
wends its way into the hands of serious consumers who share it with
their spouses or good friends. Of course, they often must pay dearly
for the privilege, but wine is not the only product that falls prey
to such manipulation. I hate to think of wine being thought of primarily
as an investment, but the world's finest wines do appreciate significantly
in value, and it would be foolish to ignore the fact that more and
more shrewd investors are looking at wine as a way of making money.
It is a frightening thought, but I have no doubt that a sizeable
percentage (10-25%) of the wines sold in America have been damaged
because of exposure to extremes of heat. Smart consumers have long
been aware of the signs of poor storage. They have only to look
at the bottle. As discussed earlier in the How to Buy Wine section
(page 7), the first sign that a bottle has been poorly stored is
when a cork is popped above the rim and is pushed out against the
lead or plastic capsule that covers the top of the bottle.
Another sign that the wine has been poorly stored is seepage, or
legs, down the rim of the bottle. This is the sometimes sticky,
dry residue of a wine that has expanded, seeped around the cork,
and dripped onto the rim, almost always due to excessively high
temperatures in transit or storage. Few merchants take the trouble
to wipe the legs off, and they can often be spotted on wines shipped
during the heat of the summer or brought into the United States
through the Panama Canal in un-air-conditioned containers. Consumers
should avoid buying wines that show dried seepage legs originating
under the capsule and trickling down the side of the bottle.
You should also be alert for young wines (those less than four
years old) that have more than one-half inch of air space, or ullage,
between the cork and the liquid level in the bottle. Modern bottling
operations generally fill bottles within one-eighth inch of the
cork, and more than one-half inch of air space should arouse your
The problem, of course, is that too few people in the wine trade
take the necessary steps to ensure that the wine is not ruined in
shipment or storage. The wine business has become so commercial
that wines, whether from California, Italy, or France, are shipped
year-round, regardless of weather conditions. Traditionally, wines
from Europe were shipped only in the spring or fall, when temperatures
encountered in shipment would be moderate, assuming they were not
shipped by way of the Panama Canal. The cost of renting an air-conditioned
or heated container for shipping wines adds anywhere from 20 to
40 cents to the wholesale cost of the bottle, but when buying wines
that cost over $200 a case, I doubt the purchaser would mind paying
the extra premium knowing that the wine will not smell or taste
cooked when opened.
Many importers claim to ship in reefers (the trade jargon for temperature-controlled
containers), but only a handful actually do. America's largest importer
of high-quality Bordeaux wine rarely, if ever, uses reefers and
claims to have had no problems with its shipments.
Perhaps they would change their minds if they had witnessed the
cases of 1986 Rausan-Ségla, 1986 Talbot, 1986 Gruaud-Larose,
and 1986 Château Margaux that arrived in the Maryland-Washington,
D.C., market with stained labels and pushed-out corks. Somewhere
between Bordeaux and Washington, D.C., these wines had been exposed
to torridly high temperatures. It may not have been the fault of
the importer, as the wine passed through a number of intermediaries
before reaching its final destination. But pity the poor consumers
who buy these wines, put them in their cellars, and open them 10
or 15 years in the future. Who will grieve for them?
The problem with temperature extremes is that the naturally made,
minimally processed, hand-produced wines are the most vulnerable
to this kind of abuse. Therefore, many importers, not wanting to
assume any risks, have gone back to their suppliers and demanded
"more stable" wines. Translated into real terms this means
the wine trade prefers to ship vapid, denuded wines that have been
"stabilized," subjected to a manufacturing process, and
either pasteurized or sterile-filtered so they can be shipped 12
months a year. While their corks may still pop out if subjected
to enough heat, their taste will not change, because for all intents
and purposes these wines are already dead when they are put in the
bottle. Unfortunately, only a small segment of the wine trade seems
While there are some wine merchants, wholesalers, and importers
who are cognizant of the damage that can be done when wines are
not protected, and who take great pride in representing hand-made,
quality products, the majority of the wine trade continues to ignore
the risks. They would prefer that the wine be denuded by pasteurization,
cold stabilization, or a sterile filtration. Only then can they
be shipped safely under any weather conditions.
Wine Producers' Greed
Are today's wine consumers being hoodwinked by the world's wine
producers? Most growers and/or producers have intentionally permitted
production yields to soar to such extraordinary levels that the
concentration and character of their wines are in jeopardy. There
remain a handful of fanatics who continue, at some financial sacrifice,
to reject a significant proportion of their harvest in order to
ensure that only the finest-quality wine is sold under their name.
However, they are dwindling in number. Fewer producers are prepared
to go into the vineyard and cut bunches of grapes to reduce the
yields. Fewer still are willing to cut back prudently on fertilizers.
For much of the last decade, production yields throughout the world
continued to break records with each new vintage. The results are
wines that increasingly lack character, concentration, and staying
power. In Europe, the most flagrant abuses of overproduction occur
in Germany and Burgundy, where yields today are three to almost
five times what they were in the 1950s. The argument that the vineyards
are more carefully and competently managed, and that this results
in larger crops, is misleading. Off the record, many a seriously
committed wine producer will tell you that "the smaller the
yield, the better the wine."
If one wonders why the Domaine Leroy's Burgundies taste richer
than those from other domaines, it is due not only to quality winemaking
but to the fact that their yields are one-third those of other Burgundy
producers. If one asks why the best Châteauneuf-du-Papes are
generally Rayas, Pégaü, Bonneau, and Beaucastel, it
is because their yields are one-half those of other producers of
the appellation. The same assertion applies to J. J. Prüm and
Müller-Catoir in Germany. Not surprisingly, they have conservative
crop yields that produce one-third the amount of wine of their neighbors.
While I do not want to suggest there are no longer any great wines,
and that most of the wines now produced are no better than the plonk
peasants drank in the 19th century, the point is that overfertilization,
modern sprays that prevent rot, the development of highly prolific
clonal selections, and the failure to keep production levels modest
have all resulted in yields that may well be combining to destroy
the reputations of many of the most famous wine regions of the world.
Trying to find a flavorful Chardonnay from California today is not
much easier than finding a concentrated red Burgundy that can age
gracefully beyond 10 years. The production yields of Chardonnay
in California have often resulted in wines that have only a faint
character of the grape and seem almost entirely dominated by acidity
and/or the smell of oak barrels. What is appalling is that there
is so little intrinsic flavor. Yet Chardonnays remain the most popular
white wine in this country, so what incentive is there to lower
Of course, if the public, encouraged by a noncritical, indifferent
wine media, is willing to pay top dollar for mediocrity, then little
is likely to change. However, if consumers start insisting that
$15 or $20 should at the very minimum fetch a wine that provides
far more pleasure, perhaps that message will gradually work its
way back to the producers.
Bodum Set of 2 So Long Stemless Red Wine Glasses A
new style of glass for enjoying your favorite red wine. From Bodum,
this wine glass is entitled "So Long". From now on, it's "good-bye"
to the formal stem and "hello" to a new style of glass for casually
sipping your red wine. The set includes two glasses, each one with
an 17-oz. capacity. Dishwasher-safe.
Bodum Set of 2 So Long Stemless White Wine Glasses w
from Bodum, it's the wine glass entitled "So Long". From now on,
it's "good-bye" to the formal stem and "hello" to a new style of
glass for casually sipping your white wine. The set includes two
glasses, each one with an 8-oz. capacity. Dishwasher-safe.
Screwless Cork Pops Wine Opener Opening
a bottle of wine can sometimes be a chore what with all the screwing
and tugging involved just to remove the cork. From here on out,
opening your wine will be simple when you use this Cork Pops Wine
Opener. It's so easy and quick: just insert the needle all the way
into the cork and depress the button on top. In less than a second,
the cork will pop out and along with it, the outer foil covering.
The pressurized cartridge will open anywhere from 80 -100 bottles
of wine. When the pressure is gone, carefully remove the needle
and place it on another cartridge. A protective needle cover is
Eva Solo 6-bottle Wine Rack, Black and Stainless Steel This
Wine Rack can hold up to six wine bottles and is adjustable. It
is comprised of 7 plastic components and 24 metal wires for the
mounting of a strong and stable wine rack, which can easily be enlarged
or shrunken in size. Multiple kits of this wine rack can also be
combined to form tall, horizontal, or cubic wine racks according
to your imagination. An excellent way to display your finest wines
in front of company or just a fun way to store the bottles at home.
Bormioli 55-oz. Nadia Riserva Wine Decanter This
beautiful, classic Wine Decanter is designed to complement the Riserva
stemware collection. 55-oz. Hand-washing recommended. Imported from
Riedel 34.5-oz. Merlot Wine Decanter Experts
agree, decanting wine is the best way to ensure clarity in old wines
and give young wines a chance to bloom. Made especially for Merlots,
this decanter from Riedel combines functionality with form. Measures
9.5-in. tall and holds up to 34.5-oz. Made in Germany.
Picnic at Ascot Barware Collection Connoisseur Wine Set, Mahogany
comes in a sleek mahogany case and has all the essential tools that
a wine-lover needs. It includes an ergonomically designed corkscrew
that will allow you to remove corks like a professional. Additional
accessories include a foil cutter, two bottle stoppers, wine pourer,
replacement worm, wine thermometer and drip ring. Picnic at Ascot
has facilitated easy and stylish transport of delicious food to
both casual and special occasions after bringing the tradition of
an elegant English country picnic to the United States in 1992.
Award-winning designs and expert craftsmanship seplus lifetime warrantee.
Metrokane Metrokane Retro Ice Crusher White, White Metrokane
brings back the original 50's ice crusher. This blast from the past
crushes up to a quart of ice in 2 minutes and is ideal for frozen
margaritas and daiquiris and to serve food on a bed of ice.
Kuhn Rikon 7-in. Swiss Corkscrew with Foil Cutter, White This
ingenious tool combines the ease of a table corkscrew with the convenience
of a foil cutter that stows away directly in the turn handle. The
nonstick-coated worm glides effortlessly into (and out of) corks,
and works with all bottle necks. Lifetime warranty.
Wine Writers' Ethics and Competence
The problems just described have only occasionally been acknowledged
by the wine media, which generally has a collective mind-set of
never having met a wine it doesn't like.
Wine writing in America has rarely been a profitable or promising
full-time occupation. Historically, the most interesting work was
always done by those people who sold wine. There's no doubting the
influence or importance of the books written by Alexis Lichine and
Frank Schoonmaker. But both men made their fortunes by selling rather
than writing about wine, and both managed to write about wine objectively,
despite their ties to the trade.
There are probably not more than a dozen or so independent wine
experts in this country who support themselves entirely by writing.
Great Britain has long championed the cause of wine writers and
looked upon them as true professionals. But even there, with all
their experience and access to the finest European vineyards, most
of the successful wine writers have been involved in the sale and
distribution of wine. Can anyone name an English wine writer who
criticized the performance of Lafite-Rothschild between 1961 and
1974, or Château Margaux between 1964 and 1977? Meanwhile,
the consumer was getting screwed.
It is probably unrealistic to expect writers to develop a professional
expertise with wine without access and support from the trade, but
such support can compromise their findings. If they are beholden
to wine producers for the wines they taste, they are not likely
to fault them. If their trips to vineyards are the result of the
wine-maker's largesse, they are unlikely to criticize what they
have seen. If they are lodged at the châteaux and their trunks
are filled with cases of wine (as, sadly, is often the case), can
a consumer expect them to be critical, or even objective?
Putting aside the foolish notion that a wine writer is going to
bite the hand that feeds him, there is the problem that many wine
writers are lacking the global experience essential to evaluate
wine properly. What has emerged from such inexperience is a school
of wine writing that is primarily trained to look at the wine's
structure and acid levels, and this philosophy is too frequently
in evidence when judging wines. The level of pleasure that a wine
provides, or is capable of providing in the future, would appear
to be irrelevant. The results are wine evaluations that read as
though one were measuring the industrial strength of different grades
of cardboard rather than a beverage that many consider nature's
greatest gift to mankind. Balance is everything in wine, and wines
that taste too tart or tannic rarely ever age into flavorful, distinctive,
charming beverages. While winemaking and wine technology are indeed
better, and some of the most compelling wines ever made are being
produced today, there are far too many mediocre wines sitting on
the shelves that hardly deserve their high praise.
There are, however, some interesting trends. The growth of The
Wine Spectator, with its staff of full-time writers obligated to
follow a strict code of non-conflict of interest, has resulted in
better and more professional journalism. It also cannot be discounted
that this flashy magazine appears twice a month. This is good news
for the wine industry, frequently under siege by the antialcohol
extremists. Finally, to The Wine Spectator's credit, more of their
tasting reports are authored by one or two people, not an anonymous,
secretive committee. I have already aired my criticism of wine magazines
and tastings whose evaluations are the result of a committee's vote.
Given the vitality of our nation's best wine guides, it is unlikely
that wine writers will have less influence in the future. The thousands
and thousands of wines that come on the market, many of them overpriced
and vapid, require consumer-oriented reviews from the wine-writing
community. But until a greater degree of professionalism is attained,
until more experience is evidenced by wine writers, until their
misinformed emphasis on a wine's high acidity and structure is forever
discredited, until most of the English wine media begin to understand
and adhere to the basic rules of conflict of interest, until we
all remember that this is only a beverage of pleasure, to be seriously
consumed but not taken too seriously, then and only then will the
quality of wine writing and the wines we drink improve. Will all
of this happen, or will we be reminded of these words of Marcel
Proust: "We do not succeed in changing things according to
our desire, but gradually our desire changes. The situation that
we hope to change because it was intolerable becomes unimportant.
We have not managed to surmount the obstacle as we are absolutely
determined to do, but life has taken us round to it, let us pass
it, and then if we turn round to gaze at the road past, we can barely
catch sight of it, so imperceptible has it become."
IN VINO VERITAS?
I have no doubt that the overwhelming majority of rare and fine
wine that is sold today, either at retail or through one of the
numerous wine auctions, involves legitimate bottles. Yet over the
last six months I have accumulated enough evidence to suggest that
some warning flags need to be raised before this insidious disease
becomes a vinous ebola. Shrewd buyers, reputable merchants, and
auction companies that specialize in top vintages take measures
to authenticate bottles of wine that may cost thousands of dollars.
The top auction houses, aware of the growing evidence of phony bottles,
are going to great lengths to authenticate the legitimacy of each
wine they sell. Nevertheless, a con artist can easily reproduce
a bottle (the finest Bordeaux châteaux use glass bottles that
are among the cheapest and easiest to obtain in the world), a label,
a cork, and a capsule, deceiving even the most astute purchaser.
Think it over -- high-quality, limited-production, rare wine may
be the only luxury-priced commodity in the world that does not come
with a guarantee of authenticity, save for the label and cork, and
the former can be easily duplicated with one of today's high-tech
The wine marketplace has witnessed obscene speculation for such
modern-day vintages as 1990, certain 1989s, and, of course, 1982.
The existence of dishonest segments of society with only one objective,
to take full advantage of the enormous opportunity that exists to
make a quick buck by selling bogus wines, is not that shocking.
It has always been a problem, but based on the number of letters
and telephone calls I have received from victims who have been the
recipients of suspiciously labeled wines, with even more doubtful
contents, it is a subject that needs to be addressed.
It was nearly 20 years ago that I saw my first fraudulent bottles
of fine wine. Cases of 1975 Mouton-Rothschild were being sold in
New York for below their market value. The wine was packed in shabby
cardboard cases with washed-out labels. In addition to those warning
signs, the bottles had the words "Made in Canada" on the
bottom, and the capsules did not have the characteristic Mouton
embossed printing. Blatant recklessness and the slipshod work of
the criminal made the fraud easy to detect.
Many producers of these limited-production, rare wines are aware
of the frauds perpetuated with their products, but they have largely
chosen to maintain a low profile for fear that widespread dissemination
of potentially inflammatory information will unsettle (to put it
mildly) the fine-wine marketplace. No doubt the news that a hundred
or so phony cases of Château ABC are floating around in the
world marketplace would suppress the value of the wine. The estates
that make the world's most cherished wines (and we all know who
they are) need to develop a better system for guaranteeing the authenticity
of their product, but, lamentably, few to date have been so inclined.
Four of the elite Bordeaux châteaux do make it more difficult
for counterfeiting pirates. Pétrus has, since the 1988 vintage,
utilized a special label that when viewed under a specific type
of light reveals a code not apparent under normal lighting conditions.
In 1996, Pétrus went further, instituting an engraved bottle
with the word Pétrus etched in the glass. Château d'Yquem
incorporates a watermark in their label. Haut-Brion was among the
first to utilize a custom-embossed bottle in 1957. In 1996, Lafite-Rothschild
also launched an antifraud engraved bottle. More recently, Château
Margaux has inserted a special code in the print of each bottle.
Whether creating more sophisticated labels that are not as easy
to reproduce (with serial numbers, watermarks, etc.), or employing
a fraud squad devoted to tracking down the provenance of these phony
bottles -- something must be done.
Space does not permit me to discuss all the shocking frauds I have
learned of or have been called in to help prove. I myself have seen
phony bottles of Domaine Leflaive Montrachet, Château Rayas,
Cheval Blanc, Vieux Château Certan, and Le Pin. Reports of
phony bottles come in with surprising frequency and have been confirmed
in conversations with retailers, both in this country and in England.
They have told me of fraudulent cases of 1989 and 1982 Le Pin, 1982
Pétrus, 1982 and 1975 Lafleur, 1947 Cheval Blanc, 1928 Latour,
and 1900 Margaux, with nonbranded blank corks and photocopied labels!
With respect to the 1928 Latour, the merchant, suspecting he had
been duped, opened it and told me he was sure it was a young California
Pinot Noir. One major American merchant, outraged at being sold
phony wine, attempted to contact the European seller, only to find
out he had moved, with no forwarding address, from his office in
Paris. The seller has never been found.
A wine buyer from one of this country's most prominent restaurants
recently told me about problems he had encountered when opening
expensive bottles for his clients. All of these wines had been purchased
from a reputable merchant who had bought the wine from a gray marketeer
selling private cellars in Europe. Corks of 1961 Haut-Brion and
1970 Latour were either illegible or intentionally had the vintage
scratched off. Since this buyer had vast tasting experience with
these wines, detection of the fraud was relatively easy. He was
convinced that the 1961 Haut-Brion was fraudulent, as it tasted
like a much lighter vintage of Haut-Brion (he suspected it to be
the 1967). In the case of the 1970 Latour, the cork had been badly
altered to resemble the 1970, but closer inspection revealed it
to be the 1978 Latour.
What is so surprising is that most fraudulent efforts to date appear
to be the work of kindergarten criminals, indicated by washed-out,
photocopied labels, unconvincing corks, and lack of distinguishing
château/domaine signs on labels, bottles, corks, or capsules.
However, with the technology available today, authentic-looking
bottles, capsules, corks, and labels can be easily duplicated, and
for these counterfeits, only a person who knows the taste of the
wine could tell if the contents were bogus.
1. Dealing with the gray market: To date, almost all the fraudulent
bottles have come from wines purchased in the so-called gray market.
This means the wines have not gone through the normal distribution
channel, where a contractual relationship exists between the producer
and the vendor. Bottles of French wines with the green French tax
stamps on the top of the capsule have obviously been purchased in
France and then resold to gray market operators. I do not want to
denigrate the best of the gray market operators, because I am a
frequent purchaser from these sources, and those I know are legitimate,
serious, and professional about what they buy. Nevertheless, it
is irrefutable that most of the suspicious wine showing up is from
rogue gray market operators.
2. Label awareness: Wine bottles that have easily removable neck
labels to indicate the vintage are especially prone to tampering.
It is easy to transfer a neck label from a poor vintage to one with
a great reputation. Sadly, almost all Burgundies fall into this
category, as well as some Rhône Valley wines. Many of the
top Burgundy producers have begun to brand the cork with the appropriate
vintage and vineyard, particularly if it is a premier or grand cru.
However, this is a relatively recent practice, largely implemented
in the late 1980s by top estates and négociants. The only
way a buyer can make sure the cork matches the neck and bottle labels
is to remove the capsule. Any purchaser who is the least bit uneasy
about the provenance of a wine should not hesitate to pull off the
capsule. Irregular, asymmetrical labels with tears and smears of
glue are a sign that someone may have tampered with the bottle.
Perhaps the trend (now widely employed by California wineries such
as Robert Mondavi and Kendall-Jackson) to discontinue the use of
capsules should be considered by top estates in France, Italy, and
Spain. An alternative would be to design a capsule with a window
slot, permitting the purchaser to have a view of the cork's vintage
and vineyard name. A more practical as well as inexpensive alternative
would be to print the name of the vineyard and vintage on the capsule,
in addition to the cork.
Badly faded, washed-out labels (or photocopied labels) should be
viewed with sheer horror! However, readers should realize that moldy
or deteriorated labels from a damp, cold cellar are not signs of
fraudulent wines but, rather, of superb cellaring conditions. I
have had great success at auctions buying old vintages that have
moldy, tattered labels. Most speculators shy away from such wines
because their priority is investing, not consumption.
3. Know the market value: Most purchasers of expensive rare wines
are extremely knowledgeable about the market value of these wines.
If the wine is being offered at a price significantly lower than
fair market value, it would seem incumbent on the purchaser to ask
why he or she is the beneficiary of such a great deal. Remember,
if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.
4. Origin verification: For both rare old vintages and young wines,
demanding a guarantee as to the provenance of the wine being purchased
is prudent. As a corollary, it is imperative that readers deal with
reputable merchants who will stand behind the products they sell.
If a merchant refuses to provide details of the origin of where
the wine was purchased, take your business elsewhere, even if it
means laying out more money for the same wine.
5. Lot numbers: Because of some tainted Perrier water a few years
ago, the European community now requires most potable beverages
to carry a lot number (but only those sold to member nations, thus
excluding the United States). This is usually a tiny number located
somewhere on the label that begins with the letter L, followed by
a serial number, which can range from several digits to eight or
more. Most producers use the vintage as part of the lot number.
In the case of Domaine Leflaive, the vintage year is indicated by
the last two digits of the lot number. However, in some instances
(i.e., Comtes des Lafon), the first two numbers provide the vintage
year. For Lynch-Bages or Pichon-Longueville Baron, the vintage appears
in the middle of the number. But be advised, many tiny growers do
not use lot numbers on those wines sold to non-ECC countries (the
United States, for example). Virtually all the Bordeaux châteaux
have used lot numbers since the 1989 vintage.
6. No sediment in older wines: Wines more than 10-15 years old,
with no sediment and/or with fill levels that reach the bottom of
the cork should always be viewed with suspicion. Several Burgundian
négociants sell "reconditioned" bottles of ancient
vintages that have fills to the cork and lack sediment. I have always
been skeptical of this practice, but those négociants claim
they have a special process for siphoning off the sediment. Certainly
no Bordeaux château utilizes such an unusual and debatable
method. Wines that have been recorked at a Bordeaux château
will indicate that, either on the cork or on both the label and
the cork. The year in which the wine was recorked will usually be
indicated. Among the most illustrious estates of Bordeaux, only
Pétrus refuses to recork bottles because so many suspicious
bottles have been brought to them for recorking. Both Cheval Blanc
and Latour indicate both on the cork and the label the date and
year of recorking. In these cases, the authentic bottles will have
very good fills as the wine has been topped off, but older vintages
still display considerable sediment.
7. Unmarked cardboard cases: Wines that have been packaged in unlabeled
cardboard boxes are always suspicious, because every Burgundy domaine
uses its own customized cardboard box with the name of the estate
as well as the importer's name printed on the box, and almost all
the prominent Bordeaux châteaux use wooden boxes with the
name of the château as well as the vintage branded into the
wood. However, to complicate matters, readers should realize that
wines from private cellars consigned to auction houses usually must
be repackaged in unmarked cardboard boxes since they had been stored
in bins in a private cellar.
8. Rare, mature vintages in large formats: Great wines from ancient
rare vintages such as 1900, 1921, 1926, 1928, 1929, 1945, 1947,
1949, and 1950 (especially the Pomerols) that are offered in large
formats, particularly double magnums, jeroboams, imperials, and
the extremely rare Marie-Jeanne (a three-bottle size), should be
scrutinized with the utmost care. Christian Moueix told me that
a European vendor had offered rare vintages of Pétrus in
Marie-Jeanne formats. To the best of Moueix's knowledge, Pétrus
never used Marie-Jeanne bottles! Large formats of rare old vintages
were used very sparingly at most top châteaux, so if you contemplate
purchasing an imperial of 1900 Margaux, be sure to verify the wine's
9. Common sense: The need to develop a relationship with experienced
and reputable merchants is obvious, but too often consumers are
seduced by the lowest price. If it is an $8 Corbières, that's
fine, but a prized vintage of a first growth Bordeaux is not likely
to be sold cheaply.
I hope the industry will address these issues in a more forthright
manner and begin to take more action designed to protect its members
as well as consumers. Additionally, I urge those renowned estates
that benefit from glowing reviews to recognize that it is only in
their long-term interest to relentlessly seek a solution to this
problem, and combine their efforts and resources to track down those
responsible for fabricating fraudulent bottles of expensive wine.
Surely the time has come for more sophisticated labels (with serial
numbers and watermarks), designer bottles that are less easy to
replicate, and capsules with vintages and vineyard names. An open
avenue of communication with the wine buyer, where these frauds
can be identified and confirmed, and the commercial and consumer
marketplace fully apprised of the problem, is essential to preserve
the authenticity of the world's finest wines, as well as the integrity
and security of purchasing fine wine.
Parker's Wine Buyer's Guide 6th Edition: The Complete, Easy-to-Use
Reference on Recent Vintages, Prices, and Ratings for More Than 8,000
Wines from All the Major Wine Regions Thoroughly revised and updated,
this sixth edition of the Parker's Wine Buyer's Guide has been eagerly
awaited by seasoned collectors and occasional drinkers alike. No one
wants to waste his or her precious dollars on an unenjoyable bottle,
and with Parker's advice in hand, no one ever will. Employing his
famous 100-point rating system, Parker rates more than 8,000 wines
from all the major wine-producing regions in the world -- including
newly expanded sections on the popular wines of California and Italy.
Each wine producer is evaluated separately, and Parker's independence
allows him to be completely honest in his opinions. In addition, the
book includes other essential information, such as how to buy and
store wine, how to spot a badly stored and abused bottle, and how
to find the best wine values for under $10.