How to Spot a Fake Wine
Updated: Apr 17
If at any given time, you've looked into aquiring an expensive, sought-after bottle of wine, the thought might have crossed your mind; am I just about to blow a giant wad of hard-earned cash on a dud in a fancy bottle?
I curse the day I watched "Sour Grapes"; an excellent, riveting documentary about the counterfeit wine market and how a single individual could rock the collectible wine-owners community and the auction houses to their very foundation. Now, whenever I consider acquiring a collectible bottle I get cold sweats: "am I getting a genuine Rudy Kurniawan?"
If you think my paranoia is ill-conceived or the extent of the wine-forgery footprint is over-stated, I leave you with a simple thought: if one of the Koch brothers could wind up with hundreds of certifiably fake bottles in his cellar, what are the chances you might have fallen victim to the same? It's not like the man ever felt compelled to buy his collectibles off the back of a van.
So what are the tell-tale signs a wine may be counterfeit, you might ask?
1. Check for Loose Foil Caps
Check the cap which covers the cork and top of the bottle; while a loose cap is definitely not the end all be all of a wine that's been tampered with, if the cap can be spun easily or displays wrinkles, this could be a sign that it;s been removed and placed back on the bottle...
That said, cutting the capsule to authenticate the printing on the cork (as well as the cork itself) is not unheard of. If a capsule is cut, it often does not devalue the bottle greatly, as it serves as a verification of authenticity
2. Inspect the bottle and label for serial numbers
Some of the lower-budget counterfeits out there will be missing serial numbers used by the winery or Chateau in question. If acquiring several bottles of the same vintage, check for duplicate serial numbers; counterfeiters get lazy and genuine serial numbers are hard to come by, therefore increasing the chances they may have used the same serial number on all bottles.
Now just because the serials of a particular bottle (or lot of bottles) appear to be genuine does not mean you're out of the woods just yet; if you check on eBay or Craigslist, you'll see an alarmingly number of empty bottles for sale... I'll bet you a broken corkscrew that decorating a home with dead bottles won't win anyone the Home Designer of the Year Award so I'll let you make wild guesses as to whom buys these and for what purpose...
3. Inspect the Label
The Label of a collectible wine is probably one of the hardest things to fake and provides the keen eye with plenty of dead giveaways... Wine makers go to painstaking extents to ensure they're using label paper with uniquely identifiable qualities. Think of the label of a wine as a bank note. The quality and texture of the paper, the ink, the detail and layout of the design all contribute to making the counterfeiting efforts that much harder to hide.
A close inspection of the label with a loupe will reveal striking flaws of inkjet or toner-based printing (multiple color pigments forming a color versus perfectly uniform, bleed-free color produced by a high-end offset printer or a plate press, which will show an outline around the printed layout)
Also, bear in mind that inkjet and laser printers require specific paper textures in order to adhere to them... when printing on textured paper, inkjet ink and toner powder will bleed or chip and possibly oxidize the label in parts over time so check go make sure the aging on the paper is uniform.
Finally be sure to inspect the front and back labels for differences in color, staining and aging; some counterfeiters are not the brightest bulbs in the tanning bed and have been known to use different batches of paper or separately aged batches of paper for front and back labels.
4. Check the cork
One of the obvious tell-tale signs that a wine or its vintage have been altered will be visible when checking the cork; as an example, a wine which has laid flat for years, in contact with the cork, will have left a deep, darker stain on the cork and may show deposits of sediments or crystals. Also check for inconsistencies and discrepancies in the cork, which may easily be overlooked. With the cost of a vintage varying greatly between years, you may be looking at a wine from the correct and genuine vineyard, however chances are the label and cork could have been swapped or altered in favor of a much more expensive vintage!
5. look for Sediment
If you're looking at an older wine, sediment should be present in the bottle. If no sediment is present, it's a tell-tale sign that the content of the bottle was replaced. That said, it is important to note that sediment should also "move if the bottle is given a gentle shake" - sediment which does not move is a sign that it was baked
6. Check the Fill Level
One of the reasons so many wine makers would rather die cruel an unusual deaths rather than giving up sealing their bottles with cork (separate debate) is that cork, with its microscopic pores, provides a unique, living and breathing seal, the downside being that this also causes fill levels to slowly decline over time. All this to say: if the fill level on that 1959 Lafite looks too good to be true, it usually is and it's a sign the label on the bottle may have been swapped or that it's a fake altogether. Why would counterfeiter not push the envelope and fake an authentic low fill level, you might ask... many buyers and brokers will not accept fill levels below the base of the neck, therefore wile such attention to detail might help with credibility of the fake it significantly lowers chances of flogging it to an outlet.
In a nutshell, armed with a loupe, a UV light, a little common sense and a measure of inquisitiveness, you should be able to spot most fakes out there!
Remember; if a deal sounds too good to br true, it usually is!
In any case one of the best, most reliable ways to avoid getting a fake, is to purchase your wine from a reputable source; certainly avoid buying from individuals whenever possible.