The Wine Detectives

Wine fraud is a big issue. It also makes for a fascinating story. So I was thrilled to be able to explore the topic in a recent BBC Radio 4 documentary called The Wine Detectives. (Click on the link to find the original 28-minute programme on iplayer).

I have to admit that, although we thought it was an intriguing subject, both my producer Dom Byrne (Greenpoint) and I were slightly taken aback by the level of interest the programme generated.

The piece below was one the RadioTimes asked me to write. Beyond this, it was covered in The TimesThe Mirror and The Guardian, which called it, ‘A programme full of revelations’. There was much comment and conversation on social media too, with one reaction (‘fascinating: more please!’) presumably reacting to the programme itself rather than the fakes…

It does seem as if the issue of counterfeit wine is an increasingly serious one. In the programme, I talk to the people trying to tackle it. One of the cases we delve into is that of Rudy Kurniawan, a convicted wine fraudster currently serving a 10-year jail term in California, who sold millions of dollars worth of wine and was subsequently discovered to have a full-scale faking operation in his home, complete with scrawled recipes of which wines to blend in order to fake any number of iconic old vintages. (The affair has been made into an excellent documentary named Sour Grapes.)

In our programme:

  • Olivier Berrouet of Château Pétrus explains why wine fraud makes him ‘sad’ and recommends only ever buying from trusted sources or the chateau’s ‘official dealers’.
  • Maureen Downey of recounts her part in Rudy Kurniawan’s demise and relates her ongoing fight against wine fraud, which she describes as a, ‘highly lucrative, relatively low-risk business’ (the maximum penalty being two years’ imprisonment in France) in which organised crime is now playing a part. Downey details the three main types of counterfeiting wine – the re-fill, the re-creation and the ‘unicorn’ – and how empty bottles of fine wine are routinely sold in plain sight on Ebay, a practice she says, ‘breaks my heart.’
  • Jancis Robinson ponders the potential reaction of those who have bought fine wine that subsequently proves to be fraudulent. Re-sell it in unscrupulous fashion? Serve it to less knowledgeable friends? Or pour it down the sink?
  • Wine-loving nuclear scientist Dr Philippe Hubert explains how he is using gamma spectrometry testing in the fight against wine fraud.
  • Drinking and destroying is the policy of Adam Brett-Smith of Corney & Barrow when he comes across a fake wine. This to prevent the wines re-entering the market, which is ‘the big, big issue’. Brett-Smith fondly remembers the time when wines were made to be ‘drunk, not faked’.
  • Bordeaux-based Michael Egan discusses ‘almost perfect fakes on an industrial scale’ and how wine fraudsters could have been great authenticators but ‘went to the dark side’.

I’d like to take this opportunity to thank my generous and knowledgeable contributors, who bring the whole subject to thought-provoking, vivid life. In particular, Maureen Downey of, Adam Brett-Smith of Corney & Barrow, Jancis Robinson, Olivier Berrouet of Château Pétrus, Dr Philippe Hubert and Michael Egan. Thanks also to Stéphanie de Boüard-Rivoal at Château Angélus, Fiona Morrison MW, Philip Moulin at Berry Bros & Rudd, and Stephen Mould at Sotheby’s.

[Susie Barrie MW on wine fraud in RadioTimes magazine June 2017]

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