Recently Elin McCoy at Bloomberg News reported that the Chinese have decided to embrace, in varying degrees, California wine, which may not ultimately be the best scenario for California or its finest estates. Other than their propensity to forge products and pirate intellectual property, I have not an ounce of animosity toward the Chinese, so my comments should not be deemed as being expressly inimical towards the country or its people.
However, while I was in Bordeaux last month visiting Classified châteaux the subject of China came up unexpectedly. I was inquiring about an odd label that appeared on a number of older bottles I had acquired several years ago. I was concerned about whether they were legitimate or not but I knew as soon as I opened one of the bottles and tasted it, that it was the real thing. After some brief conferences with other personnel, the château in question confirmed that the label anomalies were indeed produced by the château for that vintage. But the conversation came around to China.
I was told with certain authority that Classified estates are now nervous about exporting to China, although admittedly, they know it’s already too late to exercise caution. Every winemaker in France is excited to export to China, seen as the next big growth opportunity for the Bordelais, a particularly bright outlook when compared to the weakening demand for their great wines in the US. The problem it seems, is that in order to import wine there, the government mandates that every single detail about the wines’ packaging be revealed, such as the type of glass the bottle is made from, its thickness and precise dimensions and weight, to the type of paper used and Pantone ink color(s) and processes used to make the wine’s label, along with details about the corks.
I don’t want to reveal the source of this information because it could make matters worse for this château but already the gentleman I spoke with expressed regret for turning over so much detail. Clearly China’s requirements are overreaching and not relevant to the product itself; it’s not much of a leap to understand that a more sinister agenda in China is being fulfilled. And so it is that a sea of counterfeit Bordeaux wine is being perpetrated on the untrained palate of the Chinese people, which not only usurps sales opportunities from the real wine estates but dilutes the consumer’s perception of the brand’s quality by doling out poor quality plonk in a bottle with a prestigious label.
Those that are exporting their wine to China are now alarmed in the sense that they have given highly proprietary information to a nation that still doesn’t respect the value of intellectual property or property in general. China has long been a sore spot with the US government over counterfeiting pretty much anything that’s marketable, including fake parts for US military weapons, which in the scheme of things could certainly have more serious consequences than a fake Louis Vuitton bag. On visits to China, the châteaux are now finding fake wines in perfectly copied packaging and not surprisingly counterfeit wine is running rampant in China. Unfortunately the bad guys have all the information needed to reproduce fake bottles that even the château would have trouble recognizing as a knock off. Of course the wine itself is an immediate giveaway to a reasonably disciplined palate but by that point the financial loss has already been incurred.
Counterfeit wines have been around for a long time but in relatively small quantities. Most of the really good fakes are attributed to junk wines being put into real bottles that are discarded by restaurants and consumers. Many collectors and responsible restaurants are destroying bottles after consumption to help reduce the incidence of counterfeits reaching the market. It is my hope that California takes heed and considers this issue carefully, especially the Harlan Estate, Screaming Eagle, Bryant Family, Shafer, Colgin types of wines. We already have enough problems with counterfeit wines in the US but if counterfeiting wine can be done so well in China, I have no doubt that the process of using perfect materials will reach our shores at some point, if it hasn’t already. Plus, the damage that can be done to a winery can be devastating and any brand name will ultimately be tarnished if the wine in the bottle is not authentic. Please proceed with caution California!
Photo: this photo has no relevance to this post other than it was taken in Bordeaux – many more to come