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     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.

    About Wine

    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 collector.

    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 well.

    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 or Beaujolais.

    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 basic regret.

    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.

    Unspeakable Practices

    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 suspicion.

    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 to care.

    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 yields?

    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
    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
    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
    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 included.

    Eva Solo 6-bottle Wine Rack, Black and Stainless Steel
    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
    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 Italy.

    Riedel 34.5-oz. Merlot Wine Decanter
    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
    Picnic at Ascot Barware Collection Connoisseur Wine Set, Mahogany It 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 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
    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 scanners.

    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.

    SAFETY GUIDELINES

    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 authenticity.

    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
    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.

     

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