A Guide to Wine, Food & the Good Life


John Tilson • 1/10/12        Print This Post Print This PostComment Bookmark and Share





One of my predictions for 2012 (to read the predictions click here) was that disclosures would be made this year relative to the allegations of fraud contained in several lawsuits that have been pending for the last few years. In the Underground view, it is not a question of whether there was fraud or, for that matter, the names of some of the people involved. It’s really a question of whether there is a smoking gun. You see, my experiences and those of my friends associated with the Underground from the beginning have a lot of experience with the issues of wine manipulation and wine fraud. In fact, our observations cover almost the entire 40 year history of our pursuit of great old wines.

Based on current controversies, it would seem that wine manipulation and wine fraud are something new. That may be the case for the outright counterfeiting of wines, but controversies revolving around wine have probably existed for as long as wine itself. I am not old enough to know that for sure, but my involvement with wine does go back over 40 years and pre-dates the publication of the Underground by some ten years. When I first started drinking wine, my learning process was to taste as many wines as possible and to read everything I could and also to talk to as many people as I could.

And, I was not too far into the game when I first started hearing stories about wines being manipulated. As my friends and I were accumulating, tasting and drinking old Bordeaux from the 19th Century, the old timers would talk about how these old wines were made. The most common manipulation story was the belief that Rhone wines (most often mentioned was Hermitage) were used to sometimes blend with Bordeaux in lesser years to give them more depth and body. I don’t know whether or not this was true (and, to be perfectly honest, our focus was on the great vintages), but I do know my friends and I have consumed an awful lot of these old wines and can attest to how remarkable many of them were. The 1870s, in particular, are legendary. In the 70s and into the 80s we never questioned the old Bordeaux wines we were drinking. The wines were variable in quality as to origin (some vintages and chateaux were better than others – think 1870 Latour) and storage (the wines with great storage and provenance were also better than others – think 1870 Lafite Rothschild from Glamis Castle). But, the question of their authenticity was not an issue.

Part of our early experiences with old Bordeaux also revolved around the pursuit of Pomerols, primarily from the 20s, 30s, and 40s, but also into the 50s and 60s. We early on determined that some of these old Pomerols were as good or better than the best wines from the Medoc. We looked all over the world to find old bottles and drank hundreds of them. We asked all kinds of questions and got a lot of answers relative to the quantities made, the existence of big bottles, etc. The fact is that there were not a lot of the old Pomerols around. Virtually all of them were made in very small quantities. And, there was not much of a market for Pomerols in England which was the primary Bordeaux market in those days. In fact, one English wine writer called them “plebian wines”. Many Pomerols were sold to Belgians and often in cask to be bottled there. A lot were also bottled by French negociants. And, we never found or heard of big bottles despite our diligent searching.  Strange then that later after the wines were famous that large quantities started showing up including big bottles! (More on this later).

We were also buying and drinking a lot of old Burgundies. Most of these bottles were purchased in England and most of them had laid in cold cellars for an extended period. We also purchased some in San Francisco (including wines from the great Dr. Lucia collection) where there were also cold cellars with lots of old wines including Burgundies. We did not find much from the 19th century, but we did find a lot from the early 20th century, particularly the 20s, 30s and 40s. Most of these wines came from negociants as domaine bottling was still quite rare in Burgundy in those days. In fact, only a handful of producers were domaine bottling in the 20s and 30s. This increased in the 40s and 50s. And by the time we started drinking old Burgundies in the 60s and 70s there were many more domaine bottlings. We never questioned the authenticity of the domaine bottlings back then. The only incident I can recall related to a charge against the owner of Clos des Lambrays for excessive addition of sugar in the 40s. We drank a lot of the Clos des Lambrays from the 40s and really liked them so I am not sure about the extent of the addition of sugar.

But we did notice differences in some of the negociant bottlings.  An early example that we discovered  were some old Burgundies bottled by Averys, an English wine merchant. We liked the wines but they seemed to have a definite sweetness to them. Later we were told by a friend (the late Dr. Barney Rhodes who was a very good friend of the owners of Averys) that the firm used to top up some of the casks with various types of fruit liqueurs.Then a fairly large quantity of wines came to market from Dr. Barolet, a wine collector who bought Burgundies in cask and bottled them under his own label.They were impressive and rich. We liked them. There were many different bottlings from the 20s and 30s and they all shared the distinction of being rich and flavorful. Later we were told that one of the reasons was that the good Doctor topped his barrels with Cognac! So far as I know, there was never any proof or documentation of these stories, but we all could taste a difference in the Averys and Dr. Barolet wines that were not as apparent in wines from other negociants. So maybe they did have a recipe. Who knows? I don’t have any more in my cellar and I haven’t seen any offered for sale in some time.

Finally, there was also the story of the Grivelet Burgundies that appeared in the early seventies. The accusation here was that the wines had been “enhanced” by the addition of Rhone wine. The most noted of these were the “Cuvée Princess Noura” bottlings. I did taste a few and didn’t think much of them, but it never occurred to me that the producer had added other wine to them until the charges were made.

And, during the early days of my wine experiences, things started to happen that were not good. One day on Long Island with my friend, Geoffrey Troy, we visited one of Geoffrey’s friends and drank some wine. One of the wines was a 1945 Mouton Rothschild that his friend provided. Alas, it was a bit tired and oxidized. But the friend took the bottle to the cellar to get another bottle. He returned with a bottle of 1945 Mouton Rothschild and poured us all a glass. Then he asked our opinion. We replied, better, but still slightly off and a bit sweet. At that point, he left and came back with a bottle of Creme de Cassis liqueur and said that this was his secret recipe for refreshing old bottles. He wasn’t unique in doing this and he wasn’t the first or the last. And, if you did not know what 1945 Mouton Rothschild tasted like you might have proclaimed the cassis-infused bottle wonderful! I should also add that it was not until much later when Geoffrey and I began to realize that this person might have been the first person that we knew to sell “enhanced” bottles and probably launched the careers of others.

As we moved through the 70s there were many more stories. Stories like using hypodermic needles to add or remove wine from bottles, putting labels from good vintages on bottles of the same wine from lesser vintages, changing the vintage dates on cases, substituting corks, adding young wine to old wine, and other such things. People said it happened. And, there was some evidence to lead me to believe that it did happen, but it seemed to be isolated and not widespread as far as any of us knew. Moreover, as far as I know, these incidents were never reported and no one was ever charged with a crime.

The launch of The Underground Wineletter came in late 1979. And just a few years later, we started writing about wine fraud (Volume IV, Number 4, February-March 1983). At this time not many people were paying attention. They were following false prophets. That’s too bad because those people have paid a price by buying fake bottles. I have never owned a fake bottle because I was very careful where I purchased my old wines and I bought them before there was such wide spread counterfeiting. Some who bought fake wines were furious when they found out and hence the lawsuits. Others just didn’t care. The most famous quote of all probably being: “I don’t care if it’s fake. I like it!” To which I quote Forrest Gump in saying “Stupid is as stupid does!”

Well, thank goodness there are people who care and, importantly, can tell the difference. Most people can’t tell the difference including well known wine critics. But, that is a story for another day. The fact is that fake bottles are a really bad thing. First, it is illegal to create and knowingly sell false products. Second, it undermines one of the most cherished material things in life – the enjoyment of a great old bottle of wine. Society has pursued art forgers for centuries. The wine alchemists are relatively new, but they deserve the same fate. People who create and knowingly sell fake wines should be held accountable. That time is coming.

Early Underground Wine Articles On Wine Manipulation & Wine Fraud

  • One Winedrinker’s Opinion – “And Now Beware The Bogus Bottle” – Edward Lazarus, West Coast Associate Editor, The Underground Wineletter, Volume IV, Number 4, February-March, 1983


  • One Winedrinker’s Opinion  – “A Taste Of History…Or The Stench Of Fraud? An Inquiry Into The Nature Of Certain Nineteenth Century Bottles”  –  Edward Lazarus  – Lazarus- With “Another View” Geoffrey Troy, “Another View” John Tilson, and “Another View” Bipin Desai – Rarities (a companion publication to The Underground Wineletter/Underground Wine Journal), Volume I, Number 1, First Quarter 1991.


romanee conti fake




Edward Lazarus

As fine wine prices continue to escalate, it was only a matter of time before some unscrupulous soul attempted to capitalize on the phenomenon. For many years, in the field of fine art, worthless copies have often been successfully passed off and sold as great original works. A similar type of fraud is possible with regard to bottles of wine, through the counterfeiting or alteration of labels. The recently reported fraudulent 1975 Mouton- Rothschild affair in New York recalls a situation which came to light about two years ago, while assembling the bottles for the great Romanee-Conti tasting, which was reported in Volume III, Page 19 of this publication.

We had received word that someone had seen a bottle of  “Romanee-Conti 1947” on display in a restaurant in New Orleans. This was a fascinating bit of information, in that to the best of our knowledge, no Romanee-Conti was produced between 1945 and 1952 due to replanting of the vineyard. The existence of any Romanee-Conti from the extraordi­nary 1947 vintage would indeed be a great find! A colleague who was planning a trip to New Orleans was requested to go to the restaurant to check on the mystery bottle. He reported back that a bottle which appeared to be Romanee-Conti 1947 rested in a display case at the entrance of the restaurant. He had been told that the bottle was not available for sale, but was part of the owner’s private collection. Through subsequent consultations with the proprietors of the Domaine de la Romanee-Conti, and copies of correspondence supplied to us by them, we were able to piece together the facts of the situation, as clearly as it will probably ever be possible, at this point in time.

In 1970 and 1971, a total of up to two cases of wine labeled “Romanee-Conti 1947” was sold by Martin Wine Cellar, a New Orleans retailer. The wine had apparently been purchased by them for cash, from a source that could not subsequently be determined. A cork from one of said bottles revealed the wine to be Echezeaux 1964. The economics of the perfidy is clear in that the market value of “Romanee-Conti 1947”, (if such existed, which it does not) is perhaps over ten times that of Echezeaux 1964. In 1977, the counterfeit bottles received some notoriety, one of them appearing on a Houston television show. Soon after, the owners of the Domaine, upon being apprised of the situation, launched an intensive investigation, conducted by lawyers in Montreal and New Orleans, as well as the U.S. Treasury Depart­ment and French governmental agencies. By this time, however, the trail was too cold, and the source of the bottles was never determined. The crime remains unsolved, the perpetrators unknown and unapprehended.

It must be stressed that no evidence whatsoever exists of widespread counterfeiting of Romanee-Conti or any other wine. However, the fact is that in at least these instances it did occur. The lesson to be learned by wine dealers and consumers is obvious ­ certain care should always be taken when offered rare and expensive wine from other them normal channels of distribution.


Edward Lazarus

The phylloxera is a vine root louse, which attacked the vines all over the European wine producing regions towards the end of the last century. It was finally overcome by the gradual replanting of the vineyards with vines that had European varietals grafted onto American rootstocks, which are resistant to the pest. The great pre-phylloxera period in Bordeaux is generally considered to be from 1858 to 1878, during which time about half the vintages were considered to be of very good to excellent quality. These wines are still of current interest because of their fantastic longevity. Properly cellared clarets from the period can still be extremely drinkable and complete, showing little or no fatigue. Over the years I have had the opportunity to taste such pre-phylloxera wines on numerous occasions, both in large formal tastings and in small informal gatherings with other collectors. I have always been particularly fascinated by the extraordinary 1870 vintage in Bordeaux, which produced giant wines not even drinkable for their first fifty years, and have acquired and tasted the 1870s at every possible opportunity. The 1870 clarets have seldom been disappointing upon tasting, and if I were asked to compare them to another vintage with the same qualities, the closes would be 1945, with its balance of fruit and big tannins. The point is that these great wines, albeit perhaps freakishly long-lived, are classic Bordeaux, and do not display exotic or alien properties not normally associated with fine claret.

During the past year or so, there has been a good deal of discussion in the wine press regarding the authenticity (or lack thereof) of certain bottles of old Bordeaux which have been presented at recent tastings. The most immediate cause of this flurry of interest is a controversy surrounding some of the bottles of pre-phylloxera Chateau Latour sampled at a comprehensive tasting held in Los Angeles in December of 1989. Although public discussion in print is fairly recent, “the problem” has existed for a number of years. Among lovers of old wine there has been frequent and lively discussion, but there has been a nearly universal reticence on the part of those most directly involved to talk “on the record.” This is due, I think, to the simple fact that it is in virtually no one’s self interest for these questions of authenticity to become the subject of common knowledge. If there are some recently made-up or “improved” bottles of old claret surfacing, it is certainly not the chateaux themselves that are to blame. They all have faultless reputations and in any case have much more to lose than to gain in any production of fraudulent wines. These producers, although they may be guiltless when the authenticity of a 100-plus year old bottle is questioned, nonetheless must feel certain uneasiness that the public might develop a lack of confidence in their product.

The auction houses, too, understandably cringe at the possibility that demand at their sales for rare wines could be compromised by doubts as to legitimacy. For that matter, collectors of rare wine cannot be pleased at the prospect that the value of their carefully assembled cellars could be diminished by such doubts. Finally, the wine writers must be fearful that if they cry “fake” they might not be invited back to the grandiose tastings, and events where these vinous treasures (?) are opened. Of course, it can be argued that except for a few collectors and other crazies willing to spend thousands of dollars for these old bottles, who really cares? However, Jim Ryan, manager of the Wine Shop in Albany, New York, in a letter appearing in the May 15, 1990 issue of the Wine Spectator, pointed out that even though few wine lovers ever have the opportunity to enjoy such old rarities, their existence still has significance. He goes on to say that controversies over authenticity of such old bottles, or out of hand dismissal of same, could create doubt among the public, which could be of concern to the whole wine trade.

James Suckling addressed the Latour tasting controversy in the April 30, 1990 issue of the Wine Spectator. He seems to conclude that the offending wines, specifically the 1865, 1870 and 1874, were authentic, after showing the descriptions of the wines to two “key sources,” Michael Broadbent of Christie’s and wine writer Edmund Penning-Rowsell, who agreed that the tasting note for each wine seemed consistent with their experience in tasting that wine. Note that neither Mr. Suckling, Mr. Broadbent, nor Mr. Penning-Rowsell attended the tasting in question, and thus did not taste the bottles in question. Presumably the descriptions with which these gentlemen “seemed to agree” were those appearing in the Wine Spectator, and not the descriptions of the same bottles which appeared in Albert Givton’s Canadian publication, The Wine Consumer, which appeared at about the same time, Mr. Givton’s descriptions, which give an entirely different picture of the wines in question (and corresponds more with our thinking as expressed in the article on Latour in this issue), read in part as follows:

1865: “Round, fruity, not unlike a younger Ausone rather than an old Latour. Some tobacco. Nice finish but artificially sweet. Unusual.” 1870: “Impressive dark color. Coffee or chocolate liqueur and fresh wine on the nose. A fake.” 1874: “Toasty, fresh Cabernet Franc nose mixed with crème de cacao liqueur. Didn’t taste at all like Latour or any other of claret. Described by someone as ‘young Mondavi cabernet and coffee or chocolate liqueur.’ Obviously a doctored wine.”

My introduction to “the problem” occurred several years ago during a rather large gathering of European and American rare wine collectors in San Francisco. Several of the older wines seemed strange and atypical, and I recall in particular a large format bottle of 1959 Chateau Petrus, which, though delicious, had the color, and youthful characteristics of a barrel sample, rather than a wine of well over twenty years of age. It was at a tasting of Chateau Pichon-Lalande, held in Los Angeles in 1987, that the problem of suspect bottles really became apparent. The participants included experienced tasters of old wine from all over the world. We were confronted with a few older wines with some peculiar characteristics. Two bottles in particular stood out – a magnum of 1900 and a double-magnum of 1893, each reportedly from a Venezuelan cellar. Both wines had an extremely strange vanilla-chocolate-mint aroma. I had never experienced anything remotely similar in an older Bordeaux, or in fact anywhere else, except perhaps at a Baskin-Robbins ice cream shop. These wines created great controversy among the participants, some proclaiming them delicious and amazingly youthful, while others dismissed them as obviously doctored and contrived. John Avery, the English wine merchant, reporting on the tasting in the March 1998 issue of the English wine magazine Decanter, stated that he had never before encountered this distinctive chocolate characteristic in Bordeaux of this age, and that it had no connection to the wine of Pichon-Lalande. David Molyneux-Berry, formerly the head of Sotheby’s wine department, reported on the tasting in the April 1988 issue of Decanter. His description of the 1900 ended with the query, “But is it claret?” The recent Latour tasting, already referred to, represented the final nail in the coffin of the perception of purity in the rare wine market. In my mind there is no question that the bottles of 1865, 1870 and 1874 in the Latour tasting were either heavily doctored, or out and out fraudulent concoctions.

Even more troubling is the fact that, like an iceberg, for every bottle I feel I can say is definitely not right, there have been many others, at these and other tastings, which have to be considered very doubtful. Finally, about two years ago, I was asked to attempt to authenticate a range of jeroboams and double-magnums of Chateau Petrus from all the best vintages of the 1920s and 1930s. They were being offered for sale on behalf of an undisclosed seller at upwards of $20,000 per bottle. In over twenty years of following and participating in the rare wine market, both at auction and otherwise, I had never seen or heard of the existence of any large format bottles of Petrus from the pre-World War II period. Dennis Foley, formerly of Christie’s and now of Butterfield’s, also confirmed that he had never seen any bottles such as this coming up at auction in the past twenty-five years. Over lunch with Harry Waugh, who has been closely involved with the wines of Pomerol since directly after war, he told me that he had never heard of the existence of any such bottles and doubted that they were ever made. Chateau Petrus was almost unknown outside France until after the war and thus it was extremely unlikely that they would have bottled any large format bottles at all. A telex to Christian Moueix, the manager of Chateau Petrus, yielded a similar response. Meanwhile, the seller, responding to a request through an intermediary, stated that a physical inspection of the bottles was “out of the question!”

Obviously, my investigation abruptly ended, but curiously some of these same bottles were subsequently opened during a grandiose “rare wine tasting” event in Europe. Presumably the contents were enjoyed with appropriate reverence and rapture! What are we to conclude from all this? Sadly, that a person or people have been engaged in the creation and marketing of fraudulent bottles of what purports to be unadulterated rare old wine, and further, that there is big money to be made from such activity. Is the rare wine market now hopelessly compromised? Not necessarily. If one wishes to invest in the very special experience of “tasting history,” it is necessary to employ the same degree of care as if purchasing a rare piece of art. A bottle’s pedigree and provenance must be carefully checked and verified. Authenticity is guaranteed if:

  • The bottle has never been recorded. The best of these are bottles that have rested undisturbed in English and Scottish cellars, whose extremely cold and damp conditions have helped preserve the seal of the original corks.
  • The bottle has been kept continuously in the cellar of the chateau, or a sister chateau, in Bordeaux. These bottles have been recorded and topped up, as necessary, with the same wine every thirty to forty years. (It should be noted that the recorking of a bottle by the chateau does not in itself guarantee authenticity. In response to the problem of the chateaux being asked by outsiders to recork low fill and other questionable bottles, many chateaux have just recently instituted strict new procedures with regard to recorking. (See John Tilson’s report on the procedures at Chateau Latour and the Domaine de la Romanee-Conti, as well as the results of our survey of some of France’s most prestigious wine producers later in this article.)

Otherwise, it is imperative that the identity of cellars and the owners of the bottles should be known, and carefully considered, before the expenditure of a large amount of money for a pre-phylloxera or other rare bottle. It should also be borne in mind that the rarer and more expensive the bottle, the greater the motive and likelihood for fraud. Caveat Emptor!


Geoffrey Troy

There has been a great deal of controversy over a number of bottles of old wine that have been served at three large wine tasting events in the past few years. One aspect of the controversy surrounding these bottles, which some connoisseurs feel might be fakes, is the corks that have been used when these wines were recorked. I have had an opportunity to carefully study the corks from some of these controversial bottles and I would like to report on my observations. The point to be made is that the corks in these controversial Bordeaux wines differ substantially from those used by the respective chateaux when they have performed the recorkings. More than that, there appear to be similarities among the corks from the bottles where their authenticity has been questioned. If there are fakes, they all seem to have come from the same source.

The first of these events was a comprehensive tasting of the wines of Chateau Mouton-Rothschild, which covered their wines back as far as 1853. (For a comprehensive review of the wines of Mouton-Rothschild from 1853 to 1985, see The Underground Wine Journal, Volume IX, Number 11). It was organized by Edward Lazarus and myself, and was held in Los Angeles in 1987. For this tasting a bottle of 1865 Mouton-Rothschild was purchased for a considerable price from German collector Hardy Rodenstock. The cork from this bottle of 1865 differed from all the other corks in bottles of pre-1900 wines that had been recorked at the chateau. The 1865 cork had the Mouton seal and other wording branded on it in the same way that it is branded on the corks used for the current vintages of Mouton. The numerals “1865” were also lightly branded on the cork. It is this vintage branding which is most peculiar. It is obviously not original and is not centered properly. The lettering is askew and it lacks the same intensity and color that the corks from the chateau recorkings have. (See Figure I below.)

Figure 1a


More specifically, the corks from the 1853 and 1867, which came directly from the chateau and were recently recorked there, simply state “Mouton Rothschild,” the vintage and the date the bottle was recorked. These two bottles mentioned above, for instance, were recorked in 1980. (See Figure II below.)

Figure 2aFIGURE II

From this it would appear that the 1865 cork came from a young Mouton, which had been carefully withdrawn, and the vintage sanded off the cork. Then the “new” vintage, in this case 1865, was applied to the cork and the bottle was recorked. But by whom? The week following the Mouton tasting in 1987, there was a similar comprehensive tasting of Chateau Pichon-Lalande held in Los Angeles. It was organized by Dr. Bipin Desai. Here a magnum of 1900 Pichon-Lalande was obtained from the same source. Once again the cork from this magnum was very similar to the cork from the bottle of 1865 Mouton mentioned above. The 1900 cork had the seal of the chateau and “Pichon-Lalande Mis en Bouteille au Chateau” branded on the cork. The vintage, 1900, was also branded on this cork with a similar lack of intensity, etc., as on the 1865 Mouton cork. Incidentally, the 1900 Pichon cork shows signs of rubbing where the old vintage was removed before the “new” vintage was applied to the cork. (See Figure III below.) Figure 3a


When the 1900 cork is compared to one that came from a bottle that was definitely recorked by the chateau, I found no seal on the chateau cork. The brand on the chateau cork states: “Pichon Lalande Comtesse de Lalande Mis en Bouteille au Chateau 1917 Rebouche au Chateau 1984.” Once again note that the date of recorking is plainly evident on the cork. (See Figure IV below.)

Figure 4a


Incidentally, when Madame de Lencquesaing, the owner of Pichon-Lalande, saw the cork from the magnum of 1900, she proclaimed that the bottle was not recorked at their chateau! The last of the three events with controversial bottles was the recent tasting of Chateau Latour, which is reviewed in this issue of Rarities. Edward Lazarus, above makes reference to the 1865 vintage of Latour. The cork from this Latour had obviously been replaced recently with a young cork that was remarkably similar to the corks mentioned above from the 1865 Mouton and 1900 Pichon. (See Figure V below.)

Figure 5a


Because of these similarities, I would think that this Latour bottle came from the same source as the Mouton and the Pichon. In the course of our investigation, we have studied many old corks. While many of these bear superficial similarity to the corks from the 1865 Latour, 1865 Mouton and 1900 Pichon-Lalande mentioned above, none of them seem to be exactly similar. One would expect to find that fake corks, if they exist, would look a lot like authentic corks from recorked bottles, as a clever forger would obviously try to study authentic corks before preparing his forgeries. It is also no sign of authenticity to simply state the source of a bottle, whether it be Butterfield’s, Christie’s, or a private collector. In most cases, these bottles pass through many hands in quick succession, so it is hard to know the original source. Only rarely are the auctions such as the sale at Christie’s from the Glamis Castle cellar in which magnums of 1870 Lafite were sold that had lain undisturbed for almost 100 years before being packed up by Michael Broadbent. This virtually guarantees their authenticity! Also note that these magnums of 1870 Lafite have the original corks and wax capsules. The corks are in remarkably youthful condition; more proof, if any is needed, that cold, damp storage conditions will preserve a cork almost indefinitely. From all this evidence, I believe that these questionable bottles were all created by one person or group.

The outline of how to produce fake bottles of old wines is straightforward:

  • Find an empty bottle of an old vintage of Bordeaux. It should preferably be pre-phylloxera as these vintages are worth a great deal of money and relatively few people know what they should taste like. The bottle should have an original label in good condition, if possible, because this adds greatly to the value of rare old wines.
  • Fill the bottle with a carefully made combination of young Bordeaux, Rhone, Beaujolais, Crème de Cacao, etc. Use your imagination to make a good blend!
  • Remove the cork from a bottle of young wine of the same chateau as the empty bottle you plan to recork. Do not use a conventional corkscrew, as that will ruin the cork, however an Ah-So cork puller that has the two prongs that slide down the side of the cork would work fine. It is very unlikely to damage the cork.
  • Carefully sand the vintage date off the cork.
  • Brand the correct “new” date on the cork to match the label of the old bottle being recorked.
  • Recork and recapsule.

Now you have a beautiful bottle of rare old claret and you can make your haul as soon as an unsuspecting collector can be found who will purchase your fake bottle!

The above may be somewhat fanciful, but clearly the questionable bottles mentioned above at their worst might be this type of out-and-out fake. At the best they are crude recorkings that were not carried out at their respective chateaux. With this in mind, the following must be done in order to preserve the integrity of the rare wine market:

  • All wine producers providing recorking services must examine the bottles brought for recorking to ensure their authenticity. If possible, invoices from a reputable merchant or auction house should be provided. Obvious fakes and suspicious bottles must be weeded out. But this is not enough. The producers providing recorking services must also carefully taste the contents of bottles brought for recorking and ensure that the wine is reasonably sound. It should be understood by parties bringing wines for recorking that unsound or suspicious bottles will be destroyed. Only sound bottles with proper provenance will be recorked. All corks used to recork wines will state the year the wine was recorked.
  • Merchants and auction houses owe it to their customers to be very careful when offering old wines for sale to be sure that their provenance is good and that they appear to be correct in every detail. The merchants and auctioneers are the most knowledgeable people in this regard, as they often see rare wines offered in collections that are offered for sale. Just as bank employees who constantly count money can pick out a counterfeit bill immediately, wine experts should be able to tell when an old bottle just doesn’t look right!
  • When buying a rare wine, insist on knowing the provenance of the bottle. Know what authentic bottles look like before spending huge amounts of money on old wines. There are probably only a few fake bottles out there, but be careful.

Again, Caveat Emptor!


John Tilson

Another controversial subject in the area of rare wines concerns recorked bottles by a third party such as English wine merchants Whitwham & Co., as well as bottles recorked by their producers. First, I believe that more amplification is needed concerning the recorkings that Whitwham’s performs on old wines. Whitwham’s has sold a huge number of recorked wines through their wholesale and retail wine mailing lists over the past ten years both in the United Kingdom and abroad, particularly in America. Some of these recorked wines are younger Ports which can imagine might need recorking as the corks rarely seem to seat correctly in the hourglass-shaped necks of Port bottles. Most of the recorked wines, however, are valuable old Bordeaux wines. I have had numerous opportunities to taste wines recorked by Whitwham’s and have found only a few that are sound, vital example of whatever wine the label states it is supposed to be. (For example, see the note on the Whitwham’s recorked bottle of 1870 Latour in the Chateau Latour article in this issue of Rarities. The wine was absolutely dead with no vinous color or flavor at all.)

Where do these bottles come from? Of course, there is no way to know, but it is clear that a great deal of money could be made if one were to purchase low-fill bottles of old wines (without regard to the quality of their contents) and top up and recork them. In many cases, the recorked bottles distributed by Whitwham’s have only a Whitwham’s strip label or a photocopy of the purported original label. The original cork is sometimes attached to the neck of the recorked bottle in a tiny plastic bag. These original corks are so dried out and shriveled that in my experience the branding on the cork’s surface can almost never be read. It is also interesting to note the estimates in wine auction catalogues for Whitwham recorkings of old wines – they are always very low when compared to fine examples of the same wine in original condition. Usually the auction price estimates for Whitwham’s wines are one-third to one-half of the price of examples of the same wine in fine original condition, and in my experience, most are not worth even these “discount” prices. My advice to wine collectors is to be extremely wary of any recorked wine where there is the slightest doubt that the recorking was carried out anywhere other than at the chateau or property that produced the wine.

Secondly, and to further complicate matters, there is some controversy about the recorkings carried out by some wine producers. Again, it is possible for an individual to approach a producer with some bottles of old wine that may not have high fills and ask that they be recorked and in many cases relabeled. Once this has been done, especially by the producer, an aura of authenticity immediately surrounds these recorked bottles, as if the producer himself were now guaranteeing the bottles. But this is not really true. In the past, at least, many producers have been very lax in their recorking policies and have allowed bottles containing wine in poor condition to be recorked and relabeled. As examples, see the following notes from a tasting of Chateau Mouton-Rothschild held in 1987, as reported in The Underground Wine Journal. The notes are mine.

1900. Pale golden orange color. Disgusting nose. Smells like fertilizer. Volatile. Disgusting taste. Compost like and vinegary. Maybe the worst bottle of wine (or what pretends to be wine) we’ve ever tasted (0). Absolutely no redeeming quality. This bottle was of impeccable appearance. Purchased from Christie’s in 1986 and re-corked at the chateau in 1980. What is happening with re-corking at the chateau is a question for concern, judging from this bottle. Tasted three times before where it merited a (17), clearly this bottle should never have been re-corked and sold.

1899. Light color, amber tone, orange edge. Perfumed nose with some volatility. Hint of earth. Light, volatile and cedar-tinged. Poor wine (10). Purchased in 1985 from Christie’s and recorked in 1980 at the chateau. Tasted on two previous occasions – much better (17).

1874. Light color, orange/amber tone, amber edge. Perfumed nose. A bit herbal and cedary. Tinge of coconut. Light and a bit volatile, again barely drinkable (11). Purchased from Christie’s in 1986. Very good appearance. Recorked at the chateau in 1980. No previous notes.

1869. Light color, amber tone, orange/amber edge. Subdued nose, faintly volatile and cedary. A touch earthy. Light. Some volatility. Drying out. Still drinkable, but not much to it (13). Purchased from a private cellar in 1987. Recorked at the chateau in 1980. No previous notes.

1867. Pale orange color. Smells like plastic. Light, plastic taste. A disgusting, terrible wine (3). Purchased from a private cellar in 1987. Recorked at the chateau in 1980.

As you can see, these wines were clearly defective. What is the purpose of allowing them to be recorked at Mouton which, since they then have pristine new labels and capsules, with levels in the neck, would give a purchaser confidence that they are sound? It seems impossible to me that these wines could have been sound at the time of recorking and they should not have been granted the privilege of chateau recorking! Only recently have the Bordeaux chateaux, Burgundy growers and other producers come to understand their responsibilities with regard to recorking. They now see how unscrupulous merchants and collectors can reap huge profits through the recorking and sale of otherwise unsaleable bottles.

During our trip to France last year, Geoffrey Troy, Edward Lazarus and myself had an opportunity to discuss recorking policies with representatives of Chateau Latour and the Domaine de la Romanee-Conti. Alan Hare, the recently retired manager of Chateau Latour told us that they were very concerned about the possibilities of fraud with recorking but would honor most requests to recork bottles unless something was obviously wrong. However, the bottle presented would have to be sound and in good condition and the owner would need to present a signed request for the recorking. If the bottle presented was not sound it would not be topped up or recorked. Aubert de Villaine at DRC was more cautious. He stated that he felt that in the past there had been times when collectors had taken advantage of the Domaine’s generous recorking policies and later resold bottles that had been recorked and relabeled for large profits. The current policy of the Domaine is one of extreme caution – old wines will simply not be recorked at the Domaine’s cellars for fear of problems! Also, because of the extremely limited (and often nonexistent stocks) of older vintages of a wine such as Romanee-Conti, recorking and refilling with the same wine often is impossible. As purists, the Domaine refuses to top bottles with any wine other than the vintage being recorked. (Due to the tiny amount of wine added to top up bottles, we do not necessarily view using a different vintage for topping as a problem).

Upon our return from Europe, I sent telefax messages to several famous Bordeaux chateaux asking them about their recorking policies. We received responses from Lafite, Margaux, Mouton-Rothschild and Petrus. They were essentially identical, stating that they would recork bottles for clients, but that the bottles must have original corks and capsules, and that the wine must be in good condition – no bottles in poor drinking condition would be recorked. Only minor differences were noted in whether the corks and new labels would state that the bottle had been recorked. In the past, wine fraud was generally limited to the extreme low-end of the wine business, where some Algerian wine was snuck into a Beaujolais Village or Burgundy or some similar scheme. Even the few attempts at fraud where more expensive, older wines were the target were crude and easily detected. Now, however, with the huge increase in the prices of old wines, and consequently greater margin for profit for fraudulent bottles, there seem to be more pitfalls confronting collectors. While it is the duty of the producers, merchants and auction houses to try their best to protect the wine consuming public from fraudulent wines, the consumers must also be on their toes when purchasing rare and/or expensive bottles.

Still, despite the controversies raised by many of the bottles mentioned in this article, there are only a few recent instances of obviously fake wines being offered for sale in the United States of which I know. Three examples follow:

1) Dennis Foley of Butterfield’s told me that there are bottles of 1945 Chateau Mouton-Rothschild that have one part reprinted labels that were photographed from a poster that depicts all the Mouton artists labels. Even the flaws in the poster are reproduced in these fake labels! Incidentally, the actual wine in these bottles of “1945 Mouton” is 1952 Mouton – the original 1952 labels were simply soaked off the bottles and the fake 1945 labels pasted on!

2) The second fake is one that Ed Lazarus reported on several years ago and is, of all things, 1947 Romanee-Conti – a wine that simply does not exist! The Romanee-Conti vineyards were torn out after the 1945 vintage, and there is no wine labeled as Romanee-Conti until the 1952 vintage. This is a crude fake with a clearly reproduced label affixed on another Burgundy, in this case an Echezeaux 1964. A bottle was recently offered by Christie’s in Chicago as part of the Lloyd Flatt sale, but a quick call from Bruce Kaiser of Butterfield’s (as well as calls from several other collectors and merchants) alerted them to this fraudulent wine, which was of course immediately withdrawn from the sale.

3) Finally, there is a very recent case where Dennis Overstreet of the Wine Merchant of Beverly Hills reportedly sold five cases of 1986 Montrachet from the Domaine de la Romanee-Conti to a client in Japan. Mr. Overstreet had purchased the wine in the “gray market,” that is, not from the authorized agent of the Domaine in the United States, who is Wilson-Daniels, of St. Helena, CA. Jack Daniels told us that the client in Japan who purchased the Montrachet noticed when he opened the cases that the bottles did not look correct and he then contacted Wilson-Daniels. Wilson-Daniels then requested that a bottle be photographed. Jack said that upon looking at a photograph of the bottles, it was clear that the label was fake. Where the label should have said “Appellation Montrachet Controlee,” the label actually said “Appellation Romanee-Conti Controlee.” There were also other inconsistencies with the type style on the label and the capsule. Jack said that they then tried to obtain a sample of the fake bottles, and in fact, Lalou Bize, the co-owner of the Domaine made arrangements to fly to Japan to pick up a bottle, but before she could go they were informed that the wine had been shipped back to America. It has subsequently disappeared. Thus, the only evidence of this fake Montrachet is the photograph in the possession of Wilson-Daniels! Repeated efforts to reach Dennis Overstreet have proved fruitless. While we may never know how this fraudulent wine was made up or by whom, it shows the dangers of buying wine in the “gray market.” I’m sure that Mr. Overstreet did not check the cases personally and this probably just slipped by one of his warehousemen.

Remember! When buying rare wines, provenance is everything. Try to find out where bottles came from and certainly look for wines that have original corks and capsules, or if recorked by the producer, that the bottle clearly states that. Even then, it is still by far the safest to buy only old wines in original fine condition with the original cork and capsule intact and with a high level of wine in the bottle.


Bipin Desai

In view of the controversies discussed earlier it is absolutely essential, in my opinion, that anyone who contributes bottles for a tasting should be willing to disclose his source if questions occur about a particular bottle. As regards Geoffrey Troy’s specific references to the bottles obtained from Hardy Rodenstock, the following recent events need to be mentioned. (1) In December, 1989, at a tasting of Chateau Figeac that I organized in Paris for a small group of wine writers, all the bottles came directly from the chateau except two: a 1906 Figeac magnum, which I had bought at Butterfield’s in 1989 and a 1905 Figeac magnum which Mr. Rodenstock contributed. These bottles were served in the very first flight. My 1906 was good but showing age. The 1905 was remarkable for its youthfulness, deep color and an unusually different flavor. Compared to the other vintages that followed, the 1905, indeed, seemed distinctly different. There were loud murmurs from the assembled tasters that this bottle could not possibly be authentic. I asked Mr. Rodenstock about the source of his 1905. He replied that he had bought it in 1988 – at Butterfield’s! In investigating the unusual characteristic of 1905 (all vintage charts claim 1905 to be much inferior to 1906), I examined my notes for another 1905 vintage Saint Emilion that I had tasted. It was a 1905 Ausone that I had drunk at a tasting I organized at the chateau in 1988. I found from my notes that the 1905 Ausone came from the chateau’s cellar and it was also unusually different but very, very good. This fact was noted as well by Serena Sutcliffe and by Joe Gryn in their published articles on the Ausone tasting. In retrospect, therefore, one should not have made hasty comments about Mr. Rodenstock’s 1905 Figeac. (2) In September, 1990, at Mr. Rodenstock’s annual rare wine tasting in Austria, he served a Richebourg circa 1800-1830. The color was very youthful – that of a very much younger wine – and in the nose an intense smell of cognac was unmistakable. When several people in the audience, myself included, doubted the authenticity of Mr. Rodenstock’s bottle, he told us that it was bought at a Christie’s sale in London from the cellars of the Dukes of Beaufort. Puzzled, I asked several of the English writers who were present at the tasting for a possible explanation. I found out that it was not unusual in the aristocratic families in England for the butler to visit the cellar from time to time to check the condition of the bottles. Once in a while when he found a bottle or two to be getting a little too low in level or to be in poor condition, it was not uncommon for him to “fix it up” by appropriate means without his employer ever knowing about it. The youthfulness of the wine was, therefore, not Mr. Rodenstock’s doing. It was not the fault of Christie’s either (or for that matter of the Dukes of Beaufort) to sell it at the auction because they cannot possibly taste every single bottle in the cellar to assure its authenticity. It was – as they say in the classic murder mystery novels – a case where the butler did it! The above two examples illustrate that for controversial bottles, there may be perfectly plausible answers to questions raised about them. And I hope, as I said earlier, that in future tastings anyone contributing bottles should be prepared to disclose his source if the authenticity of a bottle is questioned.

Editor’s note: In light of the questions raised in the above Opinion pieces, we have checked the facts as much as possible. Bruce Kaiser, of the Butterfield & Butterfield Wine Department in San Francisco, has made a thorough search for the 1905 Figeac magnum mentioned above. He informs us that it was not sold at any Butterfield’s sale from mid-1985 forward.


This concludes Part I of this series. As you will note here and increasingly all through the series, there were many people (including a few affiliated with the Underground) who initially were defending wines that most of us believed to be fraudulent.  It should also be noted that the problems mentioned with recorkings from the producers were soon rectified and did not become widespread. Sadly, that was not the case for the fraudulent bottles which continued to appear from different nefarious sources in increasing numbers. Part II will focus on this proliferation of fake wines with commentary printed by the Underground and Underground contributors such as Albert Givton, who laid out his opinions in no uncertain terms in his great book Carte Blanche. In Part III we will bring the sordid story up to the date of the filing of the last lawsuit. Hopefully, my prediction for this year will come true and there will be some specific disclosures coming out of these law suits later in the year.

In Vino Veritas,Sig

John Tilson

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    […] [7] Tilson, John. “THE SORDID STORY OF WINE MANIPULATION & WINE FRAUD COVERING OVER 40 YEARS OF TASTING OLD WINES”. The Underground Wineletter. URL: https://www.undergroundwineletter.com/2012/01/the-sordid-story-of-wine-manipulation-wine-fraud-cover… […]

  • Adam Novicki says:

    Absolutely great article! I used to be a waiter at Spago in the 1990s-2002. Had the privilege of serving Bipin and Ed–and maybe you too! Sorry to say, I heard more than a few shady things about Dennis Overstreet, but maybe just rumors. Also heard that much of the counterfeit wine is marketed to the Middle East and Asia. Thanks again.

    • John Tilson says:

      Thanks Adam. I’m sure our paths must have crossed. I have many fond memories of Spago going back to the original restaurant on Sunset Boulevard. What a great story!
      Yes, unfortunately, there have been fake wines for years. The Underground was all over this, but most consumers cannot tell the difference between the real and fake wines which makes it easy for the crooks! All I can say is caveat emptor!
      Please stay with the Underground and pass it along to your friends!
      In Vino Veritas,

  • Frank k. says:

    great post! This is one that I have been waiting for… Especially after reading ‘billionaires vinegar’

    • John Tilson says:

      Hi Frank,
      I’m glad you enjoyed the article. The Underground was the first on this subject way back in the late 1970s. But, this is current article is just the beginning. There is a lot more. Stay tuned for parts II & III. And please pass the article and the Underground on to your friends.
      In Vino Veritas,

  • Paul C. Paris PhD DHC : Professor Emeritus, Washington Univ. in St, Louis says:

    On a visit to Sauternes in the 1980s I went to a first growth Chateau where I was well known and walk through the storage area. In that area was a worker who was pulling corks from bottles and replacing them with corks of a different year (a better year). This was being done to many bottles, (hundreds?). So I realized the reason but said nothing because did not wish to destroy my welcome
    at that chateau.

    I enjoyed your article on Manipulation of wine very much! It should be distributed widely!

    • John Tilson says:

      Thanks Paul,
      I am not surprised. I too have seen some amazing things over the years. Such as huge quantities of 100 lb. bags of sugar and citric acid at a highly acclaimed Napa Valley winery. Huge quantities of a legendary old famous Bordeaux stored away in bottles. And, I believe these things are probably only the tip of the iceberg with many more things lurking under the surface. Caveat Emptor!
      We need more truth about wine and what is in wine. The Underground will continue to stay on the trail. Please forward the Underground to your friends and ask them to pass it on. There is a long road ahead.
      In Vino Veritas,

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