Introducing our wine detective: Philip Moulin
Author: Issariya Morgan
We were the first UK wine merchant to have a wine authentication expert. Ours, Philip Moulin, is one of only two today. We speak to him about the background of wine fraud and how to spot a fake bottle.
Rewind to 2012. A young man named Rudy Kurniawan is arrested in California, accused of selling 100 million dollars-worth of fake wine over a 10-year period. His arrest – and the story that emerged – revealed the vast scale of fraud in the fine wine world.
Around the same time, Philip Moulin began learning all he could about wine counterfeiting. In the early 2010s, the launch of BBX (our fine wine exchange), combined with the events unfolding in California, demanded the urgent need for a wine authentication expert. And so, Philip embarked on a journey to become Berry Bros. & Rudd’s very own wine detective.
Now, nearly 10 years on, Philip talks us through the role of a counterfeiting expert in a wine world rife with fraud.
How did your role first come about?
In 2010, we launched BBX – our fine wine exchange – which was the catalyst for needing a fraud specialist to check the quality of the stock. And so, I began working in wine authentication in 2011. By then, the need had become greater: we began accepting stock into the company which hadn’t been sold by us, as we were allowing customers to bring their own wines into Berry Bros. & Rudd for storage.
If it was of sufficient quality and real, we’d allow it to be listed on BBX and traded on the platform. The fact that customers could list their own stock opened up the potential for reputational damage. So, Simon Berry (our former Chairman) and Max Lalondrelle (our Bordeaux Buyer) decided that we needed someone to be as clued up as possible on wine fraud. I was tasked with getting myself as up to speed as possible in the field.
In the beginning, I genuinely didn’t know where to start. In 2012, I enrolled on a course with the University of Portsmouth on counter-fraud studies – absolutely fascinating, most of it not connected to wine, but it gave me a grounding in counterfeiting and fraud law.
During the same year, there was an increased awareness that counterfeiting in the fine wine world was becoming more of a problem. It coincided with the arrest of Rudy Kurniawan, who was accused of counterfeiting millions of dollars’ worth of fine wine over 10 years.
While all this was happening, I became aware of a lady called Maureen Downey, who is the world’s foremost expert on wine counterfeiting. She had been helping the FBI behind the scenes, as they were preparing to arrest Kurniawan. I approached Maureen and asked, “Would you mind coming to Berry Bros. & Rudd and teaching us what you know?” Thankfully, she agreed.
We worked with Maureen for around two years. She came over to England and taught me everything she knew. She went through a lot of our potentially dangerous stock in the warehouse with us, teaching the warehouse guys what to look for and what equipment we needed to be using. She really helped us make a head-start on this: I was the first person doing this job in the UK.
How do you determine which wines are accepted into our warehouses?
Day to day, I determine whether wines are good enough to be allowed into the business and onto BBX. A lot of the wines we deal with are worth tens of thousands of pounds a bottle, and hundreds of thousands of pounds a case.
We have a check-in process for all customers’ wines coming into the business. Where we have a direct relationship with a producer, we’re not so concerned. Our potential Achilles’ heel is customers’ stock: the wines have often been sold by another merchant, and they’re sent to us with the intent of being listed on BBX.
When a customer says, “We’d like to send this in for storage and sell it on BBX”, firstly we check if it’s come from a listed bonded UK warehouse that we know and trust. The wine must be In Bond with a paper trail behind it.
We say “no Duty Paid goods”, because that’s when the paper trail breaks down (you can’t list Duty Paid goods on BBX). If we have any doubt as to where the stock has come from, then it doesn’t come in at all.
If we’re aware that the wine has come from another country, or from certain European destinations, it raises a “red flag” and we are less likely to let it into the business. We’re not talking about anything that comes directly from the producer, rather anything coming to us via the secondary market.
What do you look out for in a fake wine?
The first stage of checking is knowing where the stock is coming from. Once the wines arrive at the warehouse, our team look over the stock meticulously.
One of the first things that alerts us that a wine might be a fake is the case. It might be stamped incorrectly, or it might not be secured with the right band. If it has the wrong type of band, that suggests that the case has already been opened. We’re also looking out for any signs of tampering on the exterior of the case. Sometimes, we’ve discovered that vintages have been sanded off, with a new stamp applied over the old vintage. It’s not always the end of the world, but it suggests that it’s not the original case; therefore, it’s not allowed onto BBX.
That’s before we’ve even opened the case. Once open, we go through a checklist of looking at the capsules, the labels and the fabric of the glass. That includes the imprinting on the punt (the bottom of the bottle), as each property has its own unique way of stamping and we know what to look for.
Then, we look at the capsules, looking for any tell-tale signs that it’s been tampered with. Has it been chipped? Has the wax been reapplied? For instance, Rudy Kurniawan would sometimes cut a tiny slit into the capsule to make it easier to take off, before reapplying it using glue. These cuts are done very well, and are incredibly hard to see.
Next, we look at the labels. That means analysing the quality of the paper, the quality of the printing and the fundamentals of what is actually on the label. Sometimes, the counterfeiters will make mistakes with very basic details – misspelling French words, for example.
We have an electric microscope, which we use to examine the labels in greater detail. We have a blue light tool for checking holograms and holographic flecking within producer labels. We also use an old Rudy Kurniawan fake bottle of Château Lafleur for training purposes. It came to us
e via an old Berry Bros. & Rudd employee in Hong Kong, who worked for Christie’s at the time. Kurniawan sold a lot of wine through Christie’s in Hong Kong, and the colleague managed to get that bottle back from a dinner that Kurniawan had held the night before an auction. We have a case of these fake bottles in the warehouse which we use for training.
What are producers now doing to protect themselves from fraud?
One of the techniques used by producers to make it hard for fraudsters to replicate their bottles is called “microprinting”. For example, we compared a real and fake bottle of 2009 Le Pin. One of the things that stood out to us on the real label was a border of miniscule text, printed between two red lines forming a border.
To the naked eye, it looks like a filled-in red border. But when you magnify it 300 times, you’ll see that it actually reads the names of the owners’ children, repeated over and over. The fake label, on the other hand, shows just a red blur. The fake is good enough to pass on a quick glance, but when you compare the two beside each other, they stand in stark contrast.
Other anti-fraud techniques being used include QR codes, invisible inks and the use of holograms. Some producers are also inserting traceable chips into the fabric of their labels and beneath the capsules. This allows the customer to scan the chip on their phone and confirm whether the bottle is real.
From 2013, Petrus invested a lot in anti-fraud protection. They have 12 different techniques at use within their labels and the capsules of the bottle. Notably, they have their own unique ink – made by the company that produces the ink for the US dollar note – which only they can verify.
Another increasingly popular technique being used are “proof tags”, which are small stickers that seal the capsule to the glass of the bottle. The top of the tag has a layer of foil containing a unique formation of small air bubbles, which are produced in the heating process and are impossible to replicate.
Despite the development of these technologies and anti-fraud techniques, no one has been able to completely eradicate the problem of wine counterfeiting. You have to go to a lot of trouble to identify a fake bottle, which most people don’t necessarily have time for.
This is why the role of wine authentication expert is a vital one in the wine business.