Fake Wine - how to beat the con artists

How can you be sure that the wine in the bottle is the real thing?

by: Cathy Marston | 25 Mar 2011

Apparently, an empty bottle of Chateau Lafite will fetch $1,500 in China. Hang on a sec – did I say an empty one? Yes, that’s right – no wine in it, just the right bottle with the right label, in mint condition is worth $1,500 in the right markets. And that’s not all. An empty Chateau Margaux can command up to $3,000 if it’s the right vintage and you can supply the original cork as well. What on earth’s going on here?

It’s very simple – fake wine. When people are prepared to pay top dollar for a bottle of a French First Growth, the temptation to manufacture one must be immense – all you need is a nice clean bottle, a cork, a capsule and 75cl of something red and alcoholic. And in a society where ‘face’ is everything, it is extremely unlikely that anyone is going to query the contents of an expensive bottle no matter how rank they may be.

Clearly this is becoming a huge problem, not just for customers who are getting ripped off, but even more so for the makers of these fine wines. Not only are they losing sales, but they are also seeing their brand values being damaged by disgusting-tasting fakes. All sorts of systems have been tried and now finally, it looks as if an answer is at hand.

A French company called Proof Tag has developed an ingenious system of authenticating which can be used in all sorts of different applications, including on a wine bottle. It involves ‘bubble technology’ and operates on the premise that all patterns of bubbles are completely random and it is absolutely, categorically impossible to generate the same pattern twice. These stickers are used to seal the bottle and once they are removed, they become void. All you have to do is either take a picture with your phone and send it to a website or go online to the website and tap in the unique code and the site will tell you if your wine is Lafite or La-Feet.

I was introduced to these tags at Bilton Wines a couple of weeks ago and actually got to meet the developers themselves at the time. My fellow journalists and I grilled them at lengths over the many possible ways we could think of to beat the system and all of them have been anticipated and counter-acted already. Now granted, we’re not a set of master-criminals, but it really does seem as if this may work. Certainly Chateaux Margaux and Lafite think so, and have already signed up to it and you can look forward to seeing these tags on Bilton’s new premium ranges shortly – they are the first business of any kind in SA to be using this technology.

And that’s not all – checking into the website to verify your tipple also allows the winery to have direct contact with you at the actual moment you’re drinking their wine – now how long is it going to before the marketing whizz-kids really jump on that bandwagon? The possibilities for brand-building, customer-feedback, loyalty programmes are unfathomable and will hopefully result in better customer service all round. All this for a mere R7 per bottle – if I was a winery owner, I reckon I’d be thinking very seriously about proof-tagging a few bottles right now!

Read more on: cathy marston


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