Faked Out? (Tales of a Possibly Faked Wine)

Vinted on August 10, 2009 binned in commentary, wine appreciation, wine bloggers conference

It’s often said that imitation is flattery in its most sincere form.

Imitation is also a way of making a quick buck, and in the case of wine has sometimes been used to dupe even the world’s most influential palates and wine writers.

Counterfeiting, in the U.S. alone, is about a $200 billion a year business, and it’s been estimated by Wine Spectator (yeah, yeah, I know…) that 5% of old/rare wine sold on the “secondary market” is fake.  Faking a wine isn’t necessarily easy, but somewhat ironically the job gets a bit easier for those trying to fake rare, older wines – simply because most people haven’t had them, so there are few barometers to judge how they should or shouldn’t taste.  In some cases, as detailed in Benjamin Wallace’s The Billionaire’s Vinegar, the rock stars of the wine tasting world may in fact have based their tasting notes of older, rarer wines on fakes.  Examining a bottle to determine if it’s a fake can be a time-consuming and difficult process.

The reason I’m telling you all of this?

I think I recently just may have had my first faked wine…

I’m not certain it was a fake, mind you.  In fact, the only thing I’ve got to go on, in terms of justification, is my gut.  All the other evidence points to the fact that the wine was legit.  But… my gut just won’t let this one go…

First, a little backdrop: one of the greatest things about the Wine Bloggers Conference (for me) is the simple joy of networking; catching up with old friends, making new ones, generating connections.  The networking leads to after-after-parties, during which may generous people share wine from their PR, public, or private stock, most of it good, some of it downright great.  It was during one of these after-after-parties a few weeks ago in Sonoma that I encountered my possible fake.

The generous guy who supplied the wine is, in my experience, beyond reproach and is a well-respected tech and wine geek.  He shared the wine as part of several excellent wines that he’d brought to pour with the conference participants.  It was a fantastic time, if a bit chaotic and noisy, during which we passed glasses around and shared in the joy of, well, sharing.  And of course, drinking.

Despite the fact that the Mutineer Magazine guys had encouraged my to swig absinthe with them prior to this impromptu tasting, I hadn’t totally lost my senses yet when I encountered the magnum of Sterling Vineyards 1977 Cabernet.

It’s not that the wine was bad. The trouble for me was that the wine was really, really good. Superb, actually. It was, in my mind, impossibly good, young, and vibrant.  Dark fruit to spare, good acid balance, tannins that were starting to smooth out but still had some firmness, and just a hint of secondary aromas and flavors, like graphite pencil and earth.

When you taste wines that are going on 40 years old, you need to draw deep from the memory banks and compare them to other old wines that you’ve tried.  I’ve been lucky enough to taste a few older wines in the same time frame that were legit (at least, they were believed to have come from private collections and purchased relatively close to the wines originally release date).  This Sterling tasted nothing like those older Cabs I’ve had.

In my brain, I immediately compared it to a 1967 Latour that I’d tasted a few years ago. Latour is built to age, almost like no other wine – it’s one of the heftiest wines in all of the Medoc.  That wine had almost no fruit left. The secondary aromas and flavors had almost totally taken it over – at the time, I noted that it tasted like “a nuclear family’s kitchen garbage bag contents: cigar, black nuts, pencil shavings, game, “slim jim,” earth (aka ‘dirt’)”.”  It was a very good wine, but it had probably peaked a few years before I tried it.

Now, that `67 Latour was a normal sized bottle of wine.  The Sterling was a magnum – larger volume, but same amount of air in the bottle, so theoretically it could have aged more slowly. But… The `77 Sterling didn’t taste anything like that `67 Latour. My gut told me that the wine in that bottle tasted maybe 6 years old, not 30+.

I followed up with the guy who’d poured, to ask him where he got the magnum:

“K&L had them just a few years ago, direct from sterling’s cellars, oddly not $$$. They made great, age-worthy wines back then, and it was impeccably stored in a magnum at the producer…”

I’ve no doubt this guy believed the wine to be legit, and I’m fairly certain he’d never knowingly buy a fake much less pour one.  I touched base with Sterling, who confirmed that the did bottle a few magnums in `77.  I’ve no opportunity now to inspect the bottle, and I suspect I wouldn’t know what the hell I was looking for even if I did get a chance to inspect it for authenticity.

Anecdotally, it wouldn’t stand to reason that someone would go through the trouble of faking a Sterling magnum versus, say, one from Chateau Petrus – they’d stand to make far, far more on a fake of rare Bordeaux, for example.

The evidence supports that the wine was 100% legitimate.

But my gut… my gut tells me that I had really, really good wine that night from the magnum labeled `77 Sterling.

It’s just having trouble accepting that the wine was a `77 Sterling.


(images: toplessrobot.com, diageowines.com)





  • RobBralow

    That was a damn good wine…. I remember it having a bit of that velvety aged taste to it, but I cannot say that it was as aged feeling as some other wines from the 70's that I have had. However, my experience with aged California wine is very limited!

    • 1WineDude

      It's GOT to be just me, right? The evidence totally trumps my "gut" reaction.

      But damn, I can't shake the feeling that something was just… odd!

  • Tom Ferrell

    Why would anyone fake a wine using a better wine?

    I have six mags of the '77 Sterling Reserve remaining in my cellar. The last bottle I had was wonderful, rich, full bodied, silky finish. I don't know why anyone would be surprised that such a wine came from great vineyards like 3 Palms, Ric Forman as winemaker, the best equipment and the best cooperage, a low crop, low rainfall year. The only thing surprising is that anyone would be surprised.

    BTW, you may not have noticed, but the wine is 13% alcohol.

  • 1WineDude

    I'm really not surprised it was good, I was really surprised at how **young** it tasted.

    I'm not saying the wine in the bottle was a better wine than a `77 Sterling, either.

    I suppose I'm just saying that it feels uncomfortable to be in a position where one could doubt the authenticity of a wine.

  • Ted Henry

    Joe- I've had almost the exact same experience but with 1978 Beringer Private Reserve. I was convinced it was a five year old wine I was drinking. It had tons of fresh ripe fruit. I had the wine at Justin Meyer's house (in 2002) where he bought a case upon release and it was in his cellar ever since. No chance of a fake, I think there was just some good wine made in the late 70s.

  • Ted Henry

    Joe- I've had almost the exact same experience but with 1978 Beringer Private Reserve. I was convinced it was a five year old wine I was drinking. It had tons of fresh ripe fruit. I had the wine at Justin Meyer's house (in 2002) where he bought a case upon release and it was in his cellar ever since. No chance of a fake, I think there was just some good wine made in the late 70s.

  • Chris Donatiello

    A Sommelier in Vegas once told me that there is more 1st growth Bordeaux sold via Vegas restaurants in 2 years, than we produced. (IThough that probably changed in 2008-2009, the point remains the same).

  • 1WineDude

    I know it was a poorly-executed pun, but the "Fake" in the title also refers to me being "faked out" by the wine. As I mentioned, I'm willing to bet it was totally legit. Makes you wonder if those 70s Napa reds need another close look, or two… or five!

  • Maitre T

    The wine was most certainly legit. I worked at K&L when they did the deal and I knew both the buyer and the distributor rep. The bean counters at Sterling had no idea what the product was and dumped it for cheap. Contact Joe Z at K&L for all the details.

    • 1WineDude

      Thanks for chiming in!

      Now the only question that remains is… how can I get me some more of that `77??

  • Deanwine

    I agree the wine was most probably legit. Keep in mind the proximity to the Vineyard, there is a TON of these old, large formats sitting around the wineries here, and when the corporates bean counters see inventory dollars they can collect on, it's amazing what shows up. That aside, the point made above is very important; Ric Forman made that wine, and he definietly makes wine to age, that being very extracted and higher-than-popular acidity. I had a 76 Sterling Mag a few years ago from a friends cellars who had gotten it from Ric as a gift, it also was shockingly youthful, silky, and dense, I expected a dusty shadow and instead had a great experience.

    If you want to be guaranteed a fake, go to a high-end restaurant in Shanghai and order an '82 Lafite…

    • 1WineDude

      Or go to Moscow and order Georgian wine… ;-)

  • Dylan

    If anything, Joe, this is something to embrace. It's not every day that you can have a wine just completely throw you off and give you an experience you didn't expect.

    • 1WineDude

      Amen to that!

  • vinogirl

    Billionaires Vinegar is a great read, even if it is just a little anti-climactic.

    • 1WineDude

      I really enjoyed it – if you want really anti-climactic, try The Botanist & The Vintner :)

  • vinogirl

    Would you recommend it?
    I'm off to Amazon.

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