Liv-ex interview with Michael Egan, counterfeit wine expert

Michael Egan

Michael Egan is a fine wine expert and consultant who specialises in the detection of counterfeit wines. In 2013 Egan was the principal expert witness for the trials of Eric Greenberg and Rudy Kurniawan. In early October, Liv-ex’s Nicola Graham caught up with him to find out more about his career, counterfeit wines and detecting them.

How did your background in wine lead to you becoming an expert on authenticity?

During my 23-year career at Sotheby’s I spent most of my time looking at private and commercial cellars. Many private cellars that I inspected had vintages ranging over many decades – 50 to 60 years or more would not be uncommon – with some wines dating back to the 19th Century. The families had been carefully buying wines and putting the bottles away for a very long time. The great thing was that you could see the way bottles looked through natural storage conditions and how the labels and capsules reacted over the years. As a result, I got a sense of what an old bottle should really look like.

What did you do after Sotheby’s?

I left Sotheby’s because I had the opportunity to go to Bordeaux with my young family. We were going to do wine tours from our house to begin with, but as fate would have it, Sotheby’s gave me a client who had problems with wine. When I went over to see his cellar in Boston, I saw that most of the wines were fake. He then sued the vendor, so that was my first job as an expert witness and it seemed to snowball from there. Bit by bit, more and more people came to me. I’m also a registered expert with the French courts in Bordeaux.

In 2013, you were the FBI’s principal expert witness for the trial of Rudy Kurniawan. He had such an enormous collection of fake wine. Where did you begin?

The evidence was superbly organised by Jim Wynne, the FBI agent in charge. He organised the many boxes of evidence, putting the labels and capsules in order, château by château. I was there to go through them one by one and look at the different facets. I also correlated the fake items – the labels, capsules and corks – with all the fake bottles that I had seen and also the bottles that the FBI had amassed through its various victims. My brief was to provide the jury with a digestible resume of how Rudy worked and how he created these bottles.

What do you believe made Rudy’s counterfeits so believable?

I think it was because he was able to show the bottles to potential clients who didn’t know much about wine. To the untrained eye the labels looked old – they were a bit scuffed. He would provide genuine bottles at his tastings for his targeted buyers but as time went by they probably became more and more fake. He would then sell them the fake versions of the bottles tasted.

There was also a big back story there. He was friendly, people liked him, he tasted very well and to them he was a great expert. He also had this amazing cellar and everyone bought into that.

In the end, what were the key giveaways that Rudy’s wines were fake?

Some of the labels were photocopied, but really it was the branding of the corks, which did not look right. They were far too vibrant for the alleged age of his wines and the capsules were far too shabby compared to the pristine appearance of the labels. Some of the labels looked very artificial compared to the natural dirt and dust I saw when working at Sotheby’s. I also discovered that there was a watermark which was common to a lot of his labels regardless of the chateau or the domain. There was no way the same printer could have produced the same type of label for so many different domains over so many years.

How do you think Rudy was able to produce counterfeits on such a grand scale?

I think Rudy really winged it, because there were far fewer experts around when he presented his wines. Hardy Rodenstock had wine journalists and wine merchants present at his tastings, so he had a much better ground base to protect him, unlike Rudy.

He was notoriously around two or three hours late for appointments. Was he just working like a beaver at home? But with all the wine drinking he did, how compos mentis would he be making the fakes? I’ve got this vision of him working very methodically, giggling hysterically every now and again.

Maybe he had accomplices, maybe there was a little bottling line, maybe his brothers were coerced into it. But normally, these counterfeiters they’re just working on their own because they don’t want other people to spill the beans. I don’t know. It remains a mystery.

What do you believe motivates a counterfeiter? Is the desire and thrill of fooling experts more important than money?

I think it’s probably the more prosaic: to make money. But if you’re ephemeral in a way and you have a shadowy double life, you probably don’t want that much contact with people in the first place. First of all, you’ve got to manufacture the back story and make sure you hold to that. Then secondly, you’ve got to manufacture the fakes. You’re dipping in and out of their lives more than you know. So, I think logistically, you can’t spend much time with them, but secondly you probably do, because you want to win their confidence but also see their gullible reaction.

Do you think making counterfeit wine is a creative process?

Yes. It involves being very meticulous and painstaking. For example, making sure that there are very few glue marks on the bottles and really messing around with the capsules in order to put them on neatly. That’s really finickity work.

Have you ever tasted any fake wines?

Bill Koch once held a dinner in New York, which I attended. He’d taken over some bottles from his cellar, which I had deemed either genuine or fake. He put me on the spot in front of everyone with two Romanee Conti 1978 magnums and asked me to identify which was real and which was fake without looking at the labels. Luckily, I could tell straight away which one was real. It had these amazing aromas of truffle and extreme fruit, which filled the room. The other one was very dull, with all sorts of weird old oxidised flavours in the background. The after-taste was fishy, but in front it was remarkably young, with almost Ribena flavours – a really bizarre mix.

Was that a Rudy bottle?

Yes, it was.

What do you think is the most counterfeited wine?

The most I’ve seen is Chateau Petrus.

Not DRC?

Rudy Kurniawan was really the DRC specialist; not many others have done that. Everyone’s tried Petrus.

What are some of the best and worst fake wines you’ve seen?

The worst one I saw was probably at Sotheby’s when this guy brought in some vintage port. We left it overnight in the wine department and the corks exploded the next day – he’d just put home brew into it and the wine was still fermenting. We then discovered that it wasn’t sealing wax on the corks, it was just ordinary candle wax with a bit of dye on top of it. That’s the worst one.

And the best one?

I suppose the best one was probably a bottle of Romanee Conti 2005. I’ve seen the fake versions on various occasions. The corks and the capsules, unless under really close scrutiny, look very good.

You’d think the modern wines would be harder to copy? 

Exactly. The Romanee Conti 2005 fakes were the handiwork of an Italian father and son, who have since been brought to justice. I’ve seen examples cropping up over Europe. The trade are pretty much aware of it but people are now very sensitive to Romanee Conti 2005.

What do you think about the trade’s increased awareness of counterfeit techniques?

In my opinion, the more the wine trade knows about the real wines and the existing counterfeits, the better. Then everyone’s more protected because the knowledge is out there. I’m on hand just to give my opinion and to hopefully vouch safe for wines that are being sold. The more knowledge the trade has, the more instances there are of fakes being detected.

Is there a risk of that knowledge falling into the wrong hands?

Yes, of course, but If you look at what the existing counterfeiters have been doing, I think the knowledge is already in the wrong hands.

What are the wine industry, wine merchants, and the trade currently doing to combat the issue of fake wines?

I think customers are being more insistent on photographs being produced of the wines they want to sell. Merchants are certainly contacting me more frequently for my point of view on bottles. Most fine wine merchants that I know are really getting their act together. Most have a very good pictorial database of bottles they’ve seen, so they can confer with each other and ask if things are right or not. I think with these big counterfeit stories happening and the fact that modern counterfeits are still being produced, the merchants I’ve spoken to seem to be pretty switched on and are taking it extremely seriously.

Is there good sharing of information even between competitors?

I think so, because it’s got to such an extent, that they have to.

It has been suggested that as much as a fifth of all fine wine is counterfeit. Do you believe fake wine is still a problem?

I believe it is a problem and will probably continue to be a problem. I can’t really say how much is on the market but looking at the wines I have seen, I think a fifth of all wines being fake may be an exaggeration.

Do you think there’s a reluctance among consumers to check the authenticity of their wine?

Yes, I think so. For a work of art, it may be easier. You’ll get an expert like Philip Mould or whoever to say it is fake and then that’s that, but with wine it’s a lot more work to go through the cellar and check everything. It’s easier just to turn a blind eye.

Do you think pride plays a part?

There probably is the pride aspect as well. I’m not saying everyone, but some people were buying these wines for the trophy aspect and they didn’t care that they were drinking ersatz wines.

What are your thoughts on the suggestion that “if you can’t tell the difference between a real and a fake wine, what does it matter to the end consumer?”

Well it matters a lot, because authenticity is the name of the game. You want to be 100% sure that you’re drinking the right thing.

What if they can’t taste the difference? Does it matter to the end consumer if they are happy with what they’ve got?

Some people may say it tastes completely fine, but you’ve got the risk of bacterial spoilage as well. You might get away with the wines that are freshly bottled, but ten years down the line it could be absolutely rank and you might drink it and fall ill. So that’s the problem and why you really must protect the consumer as much as possible.

Wine passes through several hands before it is drunk, for example the chateaux, négociant, merchant, auction houses and collectors. Whose responsibility do you think it is to ensure the provenance of the wine?

I think nowadays responsibility probably falls with the chateaux for their anti-counterfeiting measures. However, I think if you’re selling something, it’s your responsibility rather than the auction house, or even the merchant. You must remember that’s the way the legal landscape lies as well.

What are the most important and effective measures in place for detecting counterfeits?

It’s definitely a visual game to determine, at the first hurdle, whether it’s going to be fake or not. First, the ability to optically enhance the label to see how it is printed and what the paper is like is crucial in obtaining an opinion. Second, looking at the bottle mould to see if it’s right, and third looking at the capsule and the cork. Then, if you’re still unsure, you can go further into the laboratory to see if the wine itself if right or wrong and if the bottle is correct.

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