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On Tasting
La Tâche 1962 and Grand Old Fake Bottles
Tuesday, 19th December, 2017  - David Farmer

Is it reasonable to pay $100,000 for a large bottle of wine?

In turn this asks the question; knowing there is a limit to the pleasure you can derive from drinking a wine, does it mean the price paid became the reason for buying the wine?

A reasonable analysis of what a wine is worth must conclude that paying a large sum for an old wine is an irrational purchase as what other collectable has a built in expiry date. This brings additional risks as there are no guarantees the wine will have benefitted from ageing beyond a point, a problem made worse by the detrimental effects of moving the wine from one cellar to the next.

Still we do irrational things with money and as the trading pool for ultra-fine wine became wider and deeper over the last 50 years, it attracted more and more buyers who for multiple reasons considered buying these rarities to be a symbol about themselves.

This activity then attracted a complex assortment of characters who saw a chance and began making counterfeits.

On reflection this was to be expected as they are common enough in the world of art and antiques and such is our craving for respect from fellows that even when there is no monetary gain they emerge. Indeed the motives can be complex, as the Piltdown man reminds us in the world of natural history, and is depressingly seen in other sciences,

Possibly the spark that created the collectables market for rare wine was the great wine man Michael Broadbent who in 1966 took up the challenge at Christies, London and revived the auctions for fine wine.

From this emerged many grand vertical tastings such as those of Hardy Rodenstock from 1980.

At this time market was buoyant and rising with new auction houses and price indexes being created to track prices. The thought of being fooled seemed not to have been discussed although an unease had developed by 2000 as a few commentators while marvelling at the record prices of rare wines did wonder about the origin of the stock.

If the con-men achieved anything it reminded the poor and the wealthy that tasting is a humbling experience as authenticity cannot be declared by a sniff and a sip.

Thus a recent story; 'Why It's So Hard to Tell If a $100,000 Bottle of Wine Is Fake', Mark Oldman, Bloomberg September 6th, 2017, caught my eye.

Mark describes himself as an expert on the subject of expensive bottles and this is how he approached the drinking of a Burgundy purchased for $100,000. I have introduced a few comments within this story.

'The collector sharing the bottle, acquired from a high-profile auction house, belatedly learned it was consigned by Rudy Kurniawan, the perpetrator of the world's largest wine fraud, who’s currently serving 10 years in federal prison after counterfeiting more than $30 million worth of coveted wines...'

'...And he did it well enough to fool some extremely well-honed palates.'

'...The 1962 La Tâche is a fabled vintage from Domaine de la Romanée-Conti and a strong contender for the title of Burgundy's greatest red wine. A single bottle of the 1962 is all but impossible to locate, and the one before me was a 6-liter behemoth — the equivalent of eight 750-milliliter bottles — called a Methuselah...'

[Comment: The chances that a genuine Methuselah was being bought are close to zero and shows how we believe what we wish to believe.]

'...Of all the 'tells' in detecting a counterfeit, wine's raison d'être -- the taste -- can ironically be an unreliable indicator of fraud. An authentic treasure may taste spoiled because of a bottling fault or improper storage. Even if it’s in good condition, the character of collectible wine can be off-putting to palates accustomed to conventional smells and tastes. Some of the world's most coveted wines, especially after decades of aging, can be funky with undertones of mushrooms and dirt, or even something dogs leave behind.'

[Comment: This is only partly true, as when an authentic wine may have reached the end, but great young wines and great old wines want to make you drink them. If they have odd characters you can struggle on but they are not great. It may be only that bottle or it may be they were not great at the beginning. I find this comment acts as an apology for all of those ripping up dollar bills.]

'...As we poured the wine into glasses, its colour revealed itself to be a faded brickish hue consistent with mature Burgundy. We swirled, sniffed, and sipped: Was this an immortal wine or the gustatory equivalent of Al Capone’s vault?'

'...To my surprise, the wine displayed no trace of the dull or shrill character one might expect of a sham bottle...'

[Comment: The fraudsters used good young wine, mixed with good but far cheaper older wine and many creations have been drunk with no one the wiser. Kurniawan had a formula that fooled most drinkers. So the comment is true only if a poor wine has been used which means you increase the risk of being caught.]

'...It lacked some concentration, but that’s not unusual for a wine that has existed for more than a half-century. The wine did not taste fake.'

[Comment: Broadbent notes. ‘...intensely fragrant, strawberry like, fullish body but a lightweight compared with the preceding Latours' May, 1976. This comment 40 years earlier suggests it would need a miracle to be in good condition and to pay $100,000 for '...a faded brickish hue...’ shows the insanity of the buyer.]

'...Had a La Tâche of a lesser vintage been substituted for the mythic 1962? Maybe the wine's taste was helped by the fact that we wine lovers are optimistic. If a bottle fails to live up to our initial expectations, we hope that an odd aroma will blow off and that the bottle will 'come around'. We happily drained the La Tâche, not totally convinced it was a fabrication.'

What a lovely story and there they were trying to make the best out of the wine till the very end. Without a certificate from the winery testifying it to be original it should not have been purchased and we can conclude the bottle was a fake.

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