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Five Ways Wineries Fight Counterfeits

Château Angelus's one-off black label has 21.7-carat gold lettering
© Château Angelus | Château Angelus's one-off black label has 21.7-carat gold lettering
With the sentencing of fraudster Rudy Kurniawan days away, Elin McCoy discovers the methods wineries use to beat the counterfeiters.

The new black bottle for the 2012 Angelus, embossed with 21.7-carat gold words and the Saint-Émilion château’s iconic bell symbol, looks like it would be pretty hard to fake. Fusing the gold onto the glass was a complex process requiring two firings at 600°C and 500°C. 

But most wineries charging big bucks for their wines use less-dramatic techniques to reassure wine lovers they’re getting what they paid for. (The Angelus fancy bottle is a one-off to celebrate the year the château was promoted to Premier Grand Cru Classe A.)

Related stories:
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Security companies who’ve spent decades devising protections for pharmaceuticals and Gucci handbags are wooing the wine industry with overt and covert high-tech solutions that go way beyond early anti-fraud efforts. In 1984, for example, Château d’Yquem started incorporating a special watermark its label and, in the 1990s, Penfolds began adding a laser-etched identification on bottles of Grange.

Here’s a short list of ways wineries are now combating fakery.

Proprietary Paper

With sophisticated desktop publishing, replicating simple wine labels has become very easy. Harlan Estate included complex anti-counterfeit elements in its label from the first vintage, 1990. “The label is printed with an intaglio technique on proprietary paper that has a special ultraviolet ‘signature’,” company president Don Weaver said. The printing is done by a security printing firm, the kind that produces stock certificates and postage stamps. The almost-impossible-to-reproduce label image is an engraving sourced from the archives of a banknote company that once printed U.S. currency.

By 2004, even that didn’t seem enough. Harlan added a sequential serial number and a randomly generated number tied together with an RFID chip so the bottle can be authenticated on the Harlan website.

Tagged inks

In 2007, Colgin Cellars was one of the first wineries to use Kodak’s Traceless System, an invisible marker that’s added to printing ink.

“Only a handheld Kodak scanner can detect its presence,” explained Paul Roberts, the winery’s COO. Colgin’s labels also incorporate subtle color-shifting tags. Look closely at the color inside the “o” in “Colgin” on several labels and you’ll notice that the hue is different, depending on the wine. For IX Estate Vineyard it’s purple; Tychson Hill’s is reddish; IX Estate Syrah’s has a pewter tone.

Colgin’s gold and red capsule has a notch that matches one in the ring of glass at the top of the bottle, to make it hard to replace after the bottle has been opened.

Colgin uses special inks, while Harlan Estate uses proprietary paper for its labels
© Colgin; Harlan Estate | Colgin uses special inks, while Harlan Estate uses proprietary paper for its labels

Tamperproof capsule seals

The simplest way to counterfeit a wine is filling an empty bottle of a very pricy wine with a cheap wine, corking it up, and reselling for the price of the expensive one. No faking of the label required, but you’d still have to replace the capsule that fits over the top of the cork and the bottle’s neck.

Prooftag’s BubbleTag capsule seal aims to prevent that kind of fake. Each strip features a square of translucent polymer containing tiny bubbles generated in a unique random pattern and a linking 13-character alphanumeric identification code and a QR or 2G code. The strip is applied partly on the glass and partly on the capsule at the château. It’s damaged when you try to remove it or open the bottle.

Bordeaux’s Château Palmer has used BubbleTag on its bottles from the 2009 vintage as well as on all older vintages released from the château. CEO Thomas Duroux explained: “To determine if your bottle is authentic, you enter the code online on Palmer’s website, or by scanning the QR Code with your smartphone.” He says they picked that technology because it’s widely used: Margaux, Lafite-Rothschild, Latour, Smith-Haut-Lafitte and all the properties owned by Count Stephan von Neipperg in Bordeaux and Domaine des Comtes Lafon and Domaine Ponsot in Burgundy are among its adherents.

Advanced Track and Trace provides a similar sticker, used on officially ranked Crus Bourgeois du Médoc wines since the 2010 vintage.

Holograms and encrypted microtext

Credit cards feature unique holograms with several levels of security, and many wineries now add them to their labels. U.K.-based De La Rue Holographics designed one for ONDOV, a government trade association formed to authenticate Romanian wines and protect them against poor quality counterfeit imports. Château d’Issan’s labels include both a hologram and a microtext code hidden in the label design and visible only under magnification, which allows the wine to be traced to the merchant who purchased it for resale.

Prooftag capsule seals show when a capsule has been tampered with
© AFP | Prooftag capsule seals show when a capsule has been tampered with

NFC Chips

When I stopped by tiny Château Le Pin in April 2013 to sample the 2012 vintage from the barrel, owner Jacques Thienpont was showing off their new NFC security tag, developed by Belgian company Selinko. The tag is behind the label and contains a tamperproof, encrypted digital certificate with unique information about the bottle. Buyers can check that the wine is authentic by scanning with an NFC (near field communications)-enabled smartphone.

NFC chips are the next evolution of the RFID (radio-frequency identification) chip. Opus One has inserted an NFC chip manufactured by Florida-based iProof company since 2008, CEO David Pearson said. But they also use a special security ink placed on the capsule.

Now NFC technology is being applied to capsule seals. At VinExpo Hong Kong in May, Belgium’s Selinko and Inside Secure unveiled CapSeal. The NFC chip connected to an antenna inserted in the neck of the bottle just above the cork that deactivates when removing the capsule. Scanning with a mobile app tells you whether that’s happened.

Will these methods foil the criminals indefinitely? That’s hard to say. Holograms are quickly copied in China. Ditto specially designed bottles. And one big challenge for wineries will be keeping up with the latest technology. Large-scale DNA wine profiling may be next.

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Write Comment

  • Comments

    chambolle wrote:
    22-Jul-2014 at 04:05:53 (GMT)

    And that's a bad thing?

  • Bobby the champ wrote:
    19-Jul-2014 at 12:59:10 (GMT)

    Chambolle is a curmudgeon

  • chambolle wrote:
    16-Jul-2014 at 15:04:08 (GMT)

    Here's an even better idea - stop chasing stupidly expensive trophy wines. There are oceans of wonderful wine out there which are not the target of speculation and fakery, and a small handful of wines that sell for ludicrous prices - many of the latter absurd, exaggerated concoctions that no one who buys wine to drink and enjoy with food, rather than to "acquire" and conspicuously display, would not bother with anyway. I don't defend the counterfeiters and phonies, paryicularly since I own many of the wines now targeted for fakery, purchased decades ago before anyone really cared about them and when a modest amount of money was sufficient to buy them. No one was faking Rousseau Chambertin when it was $50 a bottle. I'm sure plenty of it is phony now that is it takes closer to $2,500 to buy 750 ml of fermented grape juice with a Rousseau label on it. La Tache was a treat when it was $175 to $200 a bottle not terribly long ago, and rarely faked I'm sure - at $3,000 to $5,000 a cork, much of it is probably cooked up in someone's kitchen and even if genuine, I take a pass. None of these "wines" are wine - they are branded super-premium luxury "products," purchased and consumed as emblems of their owners' financial success. It's wine buying and wine drinking as potlatch - just read one of those silly wretched excess tasting reports that John Kapon issues, regaling readers with tales of hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of "collectible wine" being slayed at a sitting, like Vikings storming a town. And now that we know much of it was fake, it becomes an even more ridiculous exercise. Get over it and start buying and drinking other stuff. There is a vast universe of excellent wine out there beyond the "blue chips," much of it every bit as rare and every bit as fascinating as the "investment grade" stuff -- often more so, in fact.

  • Lasse Brinck wrote:
    16-Jul-2014 at 02:53:16 (GMT)

    Somehow it seems that everything printed on or adhered to the labels/bottles is easily copied. Even all the fancy electronic solutions are vulnerable. At the moment, we see a long list of electronic fraud in different countries around the globe - including credit card databases and serial number databases of esteemed auto manufacturers. Basic security techniques, like the paper based security features, still look very promising, and are easily identified by the consumer.

  • bruce nichols wrote:
    15-Jul-2014 at 17:57:53 (GMT)

    All the technology is a great attempt to stay one step ahead of the Rudy's, but what of all the older bottles, the "collectibles", which is where the serious $$$ is. Stiffer penalties for the fraudsters and their co-conspirators, more Maureen Downey's to flesh them out, and of course smarter, less greed-driven point-chaser buyers would help, but at the end of the day, be it art, auto's, or wine, it attracts the best and worst of collecting.

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