There's nothing like a nice bottle of wine to celebrate a special occasion. But what if that bottle of Bordeaux was actually a phony? Clever counterfeiters have made millions the past few years by selling and auctioning fake wines to the rich and famous.
According to the F.B.I., one of the most prolific counterfeiters of rare wine in recent years was Rudy Kurniawan. The Californian wine merchant was arrested last March and charged with fraud after authorities raided his home and discovered hundreds of wine labels and vintage bottles that the F.B.I. says Kurniawan was using to counterfeit millions of dollars worth of wine. Kurniawan has pled not guilty and remains in jail awaiting trial.
“It’s very brazen,” said rare wine expert Maureen Downey. “In recent years we’ve seen a huge influx of fakes onto the U.S. market.”
When it comes to expensive vintages of rare wine Downey is one of the leading wine sleuths in the country. She runs Chai Consulting - spending most her time in damp, dark wine cellars sniffing out fake bottles of wine for her clients.
Downey says bottles from Kurniawan’s counterfeit operation have turned up at high-end wine auctions, fancy restaurants and wine cellars around the world.
But she notes: “It’s almost impossible to discern the difference between real and fake wine by taste alone.”
Instead, Maureen says the best way to spot a phony is by close inspection. She showed us several pricey bottles of fake French wine that she says came from Kurniawan's alleged counterfeit ring.
So how do you counterfeit wine? It’s really quite ingenious. According the F.B.I., Kurniawan would often take an authentic old bottle and fill it up with a cheaper red wine and then re-cork it - turning a $20 bottle of Merlot into a $20,000 bottle of rare wine in just minutes.
“We call him the Madoff of Merlot,” said Downey.
The so-called counterfeit wine scandal has rocked vineyards across the world and left many fine wine collectors wondering if they've got a cellar full of fakes.
One victim of the growing scandal is billionaire Bill Koch.
Koch told INSIDE EDITION, “Each time we investigated we found more and more fakes.”
Lisa Gurrero asked, “How much money have you spent on fake wine?”
“$4.3 million! Now you know why I’m a little irritated,” replied Koch.
In an exclusive interview, the billionaire energy tycoon, yachtsman and wine enthusiast invited INSIDE EDITION to his Cape Cod estate to show us his wine cellar that he says is over-flowing with fakes.
Koch showed Guerrero a rare magnum of 1963 Chateau Petrus that he says came from Kurniawan’s operation.
“Unfortunately this bottle cost me $63,000. And the bloody thing is totally fake!” said Koch.
But nothing has given Koch sour grapes more than an expensive set of bottles that purportedly once belonged to the author of the Declaration of Independence.
An obsessive history buff, Koch sunk $400,000 into four bottles that date back to 1784 and were said to be owned by Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson’s initials Th. J. are engraved right on to all four bottles. But there's just one problem.
“I found out they were totally fake,” Koch said.
Why does he believe that?
Koch says his investigators traveled to Germany and found a glass worker, who told Koch’s investigators that he was paid to engrave Jefferson’s initials onto at least one of the bottles.
Fine wine merchant Daniel Oliveros didn't sell Koch the notorious Jefferson bottles, but Koch says he did sell him over a half a million dollars worth of phony wine.
Guerrero spoke to Oliveros outside his ritzy wine shop called Royal Wine Merchants located in the heart of the Wall St. financial district.
“Are you selling fake wine in your store?” asked Guerrero.
“No we are not,” replied Oliveros.
“Bill Koch has accused you of selling him over half a million dollars worth of fake wine. Have you sold him fake wine?” asked Guerrero.
Oliveros said, “I never sold him wine and I have no comment.”
So could there be phony wine at your neighborhood liquor store? To find out we took our hidden cameras to Park Avenue Liquors in New York City.
They showed us a bottle of 1953 Chateau Petrus – one of the most admired wines in the world, grown and bottled exclusively in Boudreaux, France.
The salesman assured us the bottle was authentic and came from Chateau Petrus making it much more valuable. Their price – a heft $3,400.00 before tax.
With a moldy, tattered label the bottle certainly looked almost 60 yrs old. But was it?
We took the bottle to wine expert Maureen Downey.
Downey said, “I looked at this bottle and in three seconds saw lots of problems.”
Downey says an authentic chateau bottled 1953 Petrus should say on the label: “Mis en bouteilles au chateau,” meaning bottled at the chateau.
But those words were missing on our bottle!
She also says the cork in our bottle should say Petrus, but instead ours says something totally different. Downey says it’s a generic cork. She also noted that the official seal for Chateau Petrus was missing on our bottles capsule - instead it had a red crown.
Guerrero asked, “We spent $3,000 for this bottle, what is it really worth?”
“It’s worthless,” said Downey.
Guerrero asked, “Did we get ripped off?”
“Unfortunately yes,” said Downey.
We also showed our bottle to wine expert Geoffrey Troy who runs the New York Wine Warehouse. Troy agreed with Downey's findings and said that in 1953 Chateau Petrus would have only used green glass to bottle the wine, not brown glass that was clearly used for ours.
“The color of the glass was a dead give-away it’s not Chateau bottled,” Said Troy. “You were definitely taken advantage of.”
We went back to Park Avenue Liquors and showed our bottle to owner Michael Goldstein.
“Sir, let me just ask you quite plainly. Did you sell us a bogus bottle of wine?,” asked Guerrero.
Goldstein said, “No. Not to my knowledge.”
Guerrero asked, “Our experts tell us this is a bogus bottle of wine. How do you explain that?”
Goldstein said, “That's their opinion.”
Guerrero asked, “So you stand by this bottle?”
Goldstein replied, “Yes.”
But after we pointed out the inconsistencies raised by our experts, Goldstein offered us a refund.
Goldstein asked, “Would you like a refund?”
“We would like a refund very much,” said Guerrero.
Goldstein said, “No problem.”
As for Bill Koch, he may be a billionaire but you still have feel for a guy who's poured out a fortune on worthless wine.
“There's probably no sympathy for a billionaire but a fraud is a fraud and a cheat is a cheat,” said Koch.