Chateau Scam 2014: Italy’s Weird World of Wine Fraud

Italian police confiscated thousands of bottles of table wine masquerading as high-end appellations, some selling for as much as $25,000 each.

For many Americans, sipping a glass of fine Italian red wine conjures up an image of lush sun-drenched vineyards, oaken barrels and ancient cellars to help ease the blow to the pocketbook. After all, spending $75 or more for a bottle of Brunello di Montalcino or dishing out for its lesser cousin Chianti Classico should come with the guarantee that what’s in the bottle is what’s on the label. But after a three-year investigation into suspected wine fraud in Italy, it appears increasingly likely that your vino tinto is actually vino finto, the Italian word for fake.

This week, Italian police confiscated 30,000 bottles of Brunello, Chianti Classico and Sagrantino di Montefalco from warehouses, wine merchants, grocery stores and restaurants after discovering that the bottles with the more expensive labels contained common table wine that is only worth about a dollar a liter.

Among the vineyards victimized in the wine fraud scandal is the reputable wine estate owned by the family of Italian tenor Andrea Bocelli, which has produced wines in Tuscany for three centuries. Alberto Bocelli, the tenor’s brother, told The Daily Telegraph that the scam could mean people stop buying their wines. “Aside from the economic damage, and the damage to the image of our high-quality product, we’re very saddened to think how disappointed consumers will be left by these deplorable actions,” he said.

The wine fraud investigation, which began more than three years ago, was launched after wine importers in the United States complained that their expensive Italian reds tasted bitter. After focusing on storage and shipping issues, wine specialists working with the police concluded that somewhere along the line exporters were subbing out the expensive vintages with cheap wine made from substandard grapes. Further investigation led to the discovery that the practice was also affecting wines consumed in Italy.

Italy’s Tuscan Brunello wine consortium chief, Fabrizio Bindocci, says the wine swapping took place after the wines had left the vineyards and estates. “The whole thing took place far from Montalcino and exposed characters that have nothing to do withthe world of wine and the territory,” he said. “It was introduced into the supply chain with the objective to fraudulently take advantage of the trust created by those who have focused heavily on the quality and transparency.”

The Italian scam follows an even bigger case of fraud in the United States involving Rudy Kurniawan, a Chinese-Indonesian wine fraudster who reportedly netted more than $20 million selling counterfeit wine and defrauding several banks to take out loans to buy and sell his fake wines in exclusive auctions. He was found guilty of counterfeiting wine by a Manhattan court late last year and will be sentenced in July. According to Wine Spectator many of his victims who purchased millions of dollars worth of wine have refused to cooperate with investigators, apparently so they can sell off their fake wine rather than losing their investments. “A few major purchasers of Kurniawan's fake wine have been identified, but a handful who bought $10 million combined are more hesitant to come forward, prosecutor Jason Hernandez told the judge,” according to Wine Spectator. “We could subpoena them, but it would take months to go through their wine. That would not be a wise use of resources.”

According to a recent study in France, more than 20 percent of exported wine risk being fake, and the most cherished bottles have been the object of spectacular counterfeits. In October 2013, members of an Italian family were arrested for selling 400 bottles of cheap Italian wine as fabulously expensive Romanee-Conti from Burgundy, netting well over $2 million in the scam.

In the current Italian scandal, six people have been placed under investigation for putting expensive labels on their cheap house wine set for export abroad, but thousands of bottles have likely hit the market already. And unless wine consumers have a sophisticated enough palate to discern whether their Brunello, Chianti or Sagrantino is the real deal, there is just no way to judge the bottle by its label.