Provenance of Fine Wine

Provenance of Fine Wine
Buying older vintages of wine is not without its risk, especially given the cost of fine wine, but it also has tremendous rewards if you’re careful. With lots of legal issues in the news lately surrounding wine, it’s always a good time to take stock of your wine buying practices to make sure you are getting what you pay for. News of alleged counterfeiter Rudy Kurniawan, and billionaire collector Bill Koch’s civil case against another collector have been sloshing around for some time now but the fate of Kurniawan is highly anticipated and has certainly put every collector on high alert. Mr. Koch won his case against Eric Greenberg to the tune of $15 million dollars, proving to the court that Greenberg knew he was selling fakes. Considering the evidence that I’m aware of, it seems a good bet that Kurniawan will go down too. Two brothers allege in a federal court complaint filed on June 13, that Charlie Trotter’s eponymous and famed restaurant sold them a fake magnum of 1945 Domaine de la Romanée Conti, Romanée Conti for $46,000. If that turns out to be true, I doubt that Trotter would intentionally sell a counterfeit wine to anyone, but rather one was sold to him and he unwittingly passed it on. Still he could be held liable.

While there is really only one sure way to ensure the provenance of your wine, there are things you can to do to mitigate the risk of buying flawed or even counterfeit wine. Much of this is just common sense but it can be overlooked sometimes in the heat of the chase. First and foremost (and we’ve all heard it a million times), if it seems to be too good to be true . . . that’s an easy one. No one is going to sell you a real bottle of Pétrus 1989 for $1000 dollars or a case of Henri Jayer Richebourg 1978 for $15,000 dollars. Just don’t fall for it.

Secondly, know thy seller! When I say that, I mean inside and out. Deal with them for a while before you take big plunges into fine wine. Research the devil out of them. Do they deliver on time? Will they take a corked or flawed bottle back, no questions asked (assuming it is a newer release)? What is their policy on buying wine? If they’ll buy or consign wine from pretty much anyone, keep walking (through Google search pages). I’ve had good merchants credit me for several bottles of older vintage Penfolds Grange that were severely flawed, just on my word alone. That’s a great merchant and a wise one. I’ve had another merchant go through a whole week of hell with importers, distributors, and eventually all the way back to the château, trying to determine if indeed a blatant label anomaly was produced by the château that particular vintage. It was. Later I was able to verify that the merchant was completely forthright about the information given to me when I actually visited château myself. These are merchants that are going to be around for a long, long time because they work hard to maintain their reputations and care about the outcome of your experience with them.

Auctions. Like so many things in life, auctions can be a blessing or a curse. In every auction catalog I have received, there is always at least one or two lots I can spot that are undervalued and if it is a wine I want to own, I’ll bid on it. On the several occasions that I have been the successful bidder I ended up with a very good deal on excellent fine wine. However, I personally only deal with a few auction houses that I consider reputable; I’m affirmatively not saying others are not reputable but, shall we say, I avoid them. The auction houses I deal with have very well informed experts that vet their wine very carefully before taking it to the auction block but even then, they can be duped; to wit Rudy Kurniawan. There are a plethora of auction sites that allow sellers to auction their undocumented wine in whatever quantity they have, be it single bottles or entire cellars. The problem with this practice is the occasional wine buyer that buys one or two bottles of a great wine but later decides to sell them for whatever reason but so often it’s impossible to track where it came from, how many people owned it prior to the current seller, or how it was shipped and stored. This can drasticallyreduce the quality of any wine regardless of how great it once was.

You’ve probably heard the saying, ‘there is no great wine, only great bottles’? I’m sure this adage was borne out of not-so-good experiences with questionable provenance. Some bottles I would hazard to guess are like that mythical fruitcake, in that they just keep passing from person to person the world over – no one ever consumes these wines, rather, people just keep selling them. Even with the best intentions of past owners, shipping at the wrong time of year to the right address in the wrong region or season will crush the life out of that wine. I avoid consumer-type auction sites and consumer consignment sites like I would avoid STDs or drinking bacon fat everyday for breakfast. Sorry, but if you like to gamble, go play the tables in Las Vegas and if you’re really feeling lucky, buy a bottle of Château Pétrus in Las Vegas, or buy wine on a consumer auction site. There are many merchants that buy wine from consumers by the bottle and resell them or buy them from these auctions. Do not buy fine wine this way unless you are masochistic. In that case, enjoy your probably flawed wine.

You will always pay more for wine that has a documented history and can be shown to you with original documents. Of course, as stated earlier, the one way to buy wine with perfect provenance is to buy it directly from the winery, or as close as possible. That’s difficult to do for most of us but sometimes wine will come on the auction block that was sourced directly from the wine estate, guaranteeing provenance. Also some of the better retailers will sometimes get an offer from a wine estate that is willing to sell off some of their ‘library wines’ (meaning back vintages), and the retailer of course can guarantee perfect provenance in these situations. Château Latour will be doing this probably at least once per year, selling to a handful of merchants and shipping the wine directly to them. It’s a great way to buy older vintages of a spectacular wine that you know will be in pristine condition. These wines naturally cost more than others that have been banging around the planet for years in who knows what condition, but are definitely worth it. Many collectors are happy to pay a premium for these wines.

Consider the age of the wines you are buying. Remember that the older the wine, the more important provenance is because, not only is it less likely to have a documented trail of ownership, but also wine gets fragile in its older age. There could be fifty-year-old great Bordeaux that you’ve always wanted but, assuming it is the genuine article, there will be a big difference between how that wine holds up by buying it from an unknown source, or buying it directly from the château or a reputable wine merchant. Buy from the wrong source that acquires inventory without being picky about the history of the wine, its owners, or its storage conditions, and you may end up paying a lot of money for worthless wine. Wine like this could have spent a year or two at room temperature during the course of being passed around auction houses and retailers, just because one owner in the chain failed to cellar the wine properly. Of course age will eventually make the wine undrinkable even with stellar provenance, but improper storage or shipping conditions just speed the aging process up, sometime substantially. Take into account that merchants can have wine in their inventory that they don’t know has already faded into glory. Don’t rely on a retailer or auction house to vet this for you because not all of them are able to keep up with each wine in inventory or sometimes they just don’t catch it. It’s up to you to decide whether or not a particular wine has seen its better days but again research everything you can before putting large dollars into wine that was considered great – at one time. Always read the fine print from every source with which you do business too, so you know what to expect with your transactions.

Last, but certainly not least, never, ever buy any wine that came from China or even may have come from China. Never. This is not just a mecca for counterfeit wine, it the center of the counterfeit universe. It’s so bad there, that even the Chinese will not buy wine in China that lacks proof-positive provenance. This is not a problem in the US yet but I believe it will be and I think these will begin to start showing up on our shores within the next year or two. As indicated in a past post on this site, the Chinese will not allow imports from anywhere without first receiving a printable copy of the wine label and every single detail about it, including the exact specifications for the label used, the glue used, the exact ink colors used, the precise specifications for the bottle glass, corks, capsules, and so on. No bloody wonder there is a counterfeit wine problem in China! Add to that the recent development of the Chinese government going all austere on their entertainment budgets and encouraging its residents to do the same. Accordingly, there are cellars being sold off from sources known already to contain fakes, including some owned by high government officials. Know your provenance, be vigilent, and use every resource available to you.

Ad emendum vinum fictus stultus est  (to buy fake wine is stupid).

David Boyer

Photo: A nice library of wine sold at its source, beautiful and delicious Second Growth, Château Pichon-Longueville Baron. I know they have older vintages available too.

2 comments on “Provenance of Fine Wine”

  1. Penfold grange

    Victoria Cellars provides an extensive range of fine wines from Australia and rare wines from around the world, including Penfolds Grange, Bin 707, Bin 389, Chateau Lafite Rothschild.

  2. Chinese Musician Restaurant

    Provenance means the place of origin or earliest known history of something. As the fine wine market has developed in recent years, and prices have risen, perfect provenance has become an increasingly critical factor in ensuring wines reach their maximum value at the point of exit. Wines stored in their original wooden casing (OWC) hold most market desirability and garner the best prices.

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