Where is China’s fake lake?
We’ve all heard the rumours: the hypodermic needles used to empty and refill bottles, the wines exported from China only to return with a new national identity, and the one about three times the total annual production of Lafite being consumed monthly at a single Dongguan hotel. We’ve started to question the empty trophy bottles on our friends’ mantelpieces and give bottles of Jacob’s Creek on the shelves at 7-Eleven the sceptical eye.
Then there are the confirmed cases that sent shudders through the industry: the recent indictment of Rudy Kurniawan and the scandal of Labouré-Roi, the largest supplier of Burgundy for airlines, which was shown to be falsely labelling up to 1.6 million bottles of its own product and engaging in illegal blending.
But given that these incidents occurred as far away as the US and France, why should Hong Kong be tarred with the brush of these scandals? And yet there appears at the end of nearly every article on Kurniawan et al cautionary remarks that these bottles will likely be fobbed off on the less-discerning Asian market.
A prize example is this from Michael Steinberger in Vanity Fair: “In recent years, Hong Kong has eclipsed London and New York as the richest wine auction market, and it has apparently also become a dumping ground for counterfeits.”
When we raise the topic, we get a mix of resigned shrugs and angry snarls that “Hong Kong” should be doing more to battle counterfeiting (although nobody says who specifically). Hong Kong, we protest, is not thought disreputable in our part of the world: mainland buyers travel to our city to buy their Mouton (as well as their Vuitton).
The Hong Kong Quality Assurance Association’s Wine Storage Management Systems Certification Scheme, while not a silver bullet, is at least trying to keep up. From this year, all certified businesses must prove they have a viable disposal scheme for used crates and bottles to ensure they do not recirculate. Ties have been established between our customs office and those in France, the US, Chile and Australia, but as Albert Ho, head of the Intellectual Property Investigation Bureau, recently said, customs has more difficulty establishing official relationships than the criminals, who don’t face bureaucratic hurdles.
Much of the mendacity in the market is blamed on mainland super fakes. (Who hasn’t heard the story about the sham merchant who “only accepts genuine empty bottles”?) But according to the Customs and Excise Department the number of bottles coming into our city from the mainland is negligible. This may not address Steinberger’s point, but at least it suggests Hong Kong is not adding to the pool of auction-worthy fakes.
And surely a country famed for its excellence in fakery can spot a phoney. As storage expert Greg De’Eb of Crown Wine Cellars says, mainland clients are especially attuned to chicanery; for instance, they are aware that bottles left unattended in temporary storage may be swapped out of a case with sterling provenance and replaced with bottles of the same label but a different past. This practice, known as “bottle switching”, is not even technically fraud, as the wines are, in the eyes of the law, identical.
Tech-driven solutions include unique bubble tags, scannable codes and radio frequency identity tags that talk to our smartphones. But these don’t address the problem of older wines, which may have only oral accounts of their provenance. Chemical analysis of a wine’s mineral contents can only hope to validate the wine by destroying it.
What can we as an industry and as a wine-loving public do? For one thing, let’s stop irresponsible rumours, as they do nothing but damage the market. The next time someone tells you that 20 per cent of the wine in Guangdong is fake, or that boatloads of bulk wine are being sent out of China then resold as Australian wine, ask them for names and details of the case. For a case to be enforceable, the brand’s trademark must be registered with the customs office (on the mainland, it must be registered in characters and Roman letters); if you see suspicious bottles, e-mail the owners with snapshots to encourage them to protect their brand. If the claim is something you can substantiate, e-mail us [email@example.com] and we’ll report it anonymously on your behalf. If we all act as watchdogs and insist on some accountability, perhaps we’ll know better where to expend our energies.
(As published in the South China Morning Post)