The etiquette of pouring a counterfeit wine

Mike Steinberger, friend of the blog, started a series of posts on his blog wherein he plays Wine Ethicist, answering (or posing) questions on etiquette in the wine world. Since Mike has fallen off the face of the internet (actually, I think he’s traveling) and has let his blog idle this week, we’re happy to pick up the slack on etiquette with a timely topic: the serving of counterfeit wine.

The arrest of Rudy Kurniawan was all the buzz everywhere I went this week (well, except my local grocery store, where nobody cared). As the talk led to counterfeiting, many in the wine world shared stories with me of dodgy or legendary bottles they’d had, the suspicious people they’d met, or why, like those at my grocery store, they couldn’t give a rip. I largely agree with that last point: while the tale of bling, duplicity and gullibility has undeniably enticing details and wine is deliciously multifacted, I spend my professional life tasting wine and writing about principally because I like to drink it with dinner. I’m not interested in chasing down magnums of ’47 Lafleur; I’ll stick with Lapierre Morgon because it’s not only more affordable but there’s there no chance of it being fake.

One sommelier told me this week that he opened a bottle that a collector had brought in. Although it had a celebrated 1947 Bordeaux was written on the label, when he pulled the cork, it read 1966 Rioja. So, here’s the etiquette question/ethical quandary: should the somm have alerted the diner to the fake right away or let the him and his companions enjoy the wine as if it were what was on the label?

Hit the comments with your thoughts. And I’ll share what the somm did after you’ve had a chance to weigh in.

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31 Responses to “The etiquette of pouring a counterfeit wine”

  1. Simply pour the wine, and present the cork as usual, without saying a word.

  2. That’s terrible…I think the somm should have quietly alerted the person who brought the bottle who could then make the decision whether or not to drink it.

  3. He should simply pull the man/woman aside, explain to them that the cork doesn’t match the bottle and that this may mean its a fake, and let him/her make the decision of what to tell their party. If you say nothing you’re just protecting the perpetrator from a richly deserved legal action.

  4. The somm MUST let the customer know privately. If the customer owns a 1947 Lafleur, surely he will have some expectation on what it will taste like – and I’m guessing it won’t be a rioja.

    If the somm doesn’t tell the customer, he runs the risk of the customer thinking the somm has switched the bottles.

    As a customer, I’d want to know. Perhaps I’d ask for it to be recorked and return it – perhaps I’d have a good laugh and drink it – but I’d want to know.

  5. Initially, I thought it would be best just present the cork to the patron without any other mention (with the incorrect date and region it should be obvious). But would that be in the restaurants or the patron’s best interest? The sommelier doesn’t want to embarrass the guest, but not mentioning the discrepancy and letting the patron and his guests drink in oblivion is dishonest.

    Let the host know discreetly, and let the patron decide how to handle it. If I was the host, I’d serve the wine to my guests, and then let them know what was up – it would be a great lesson in perception. Half the guests would have loved the wine due to the pedigree, the other half would be thinking the wine was off, but were too polite to mention it.

    All the best,

    Nannette Eaton

  6. I’m with S Kos, surely someone who owns that bottle would TASTE the difference, so letting them know, privately, would be best.

  7. I might alert the owner that it appears his wine had been recorked in the 60s. It was my understanding that recorking is rather common. Then, with that said, show the owner the cork, and let him draw his own conclusions.

  8. “I’ll stick with Lapierre Morgon because it’s not only more affordable but there’s there no chance of it being fake.”

    That gives me an idea…

  9. Yeh, pour and lay down the cork, let the client make the decision to share the information with the table or not, and if they can’t tell a much younger Rioja from a very aged Bordeaux, then none the wiser.

    I might pull the head of table aside and share the news so as to not have him embarrassed by one of the others at the table noting something wrong, especially if it is one of several wines that have been poured and it is the star.

  10. I agree with most here….The host MUST be told, discreetly. To just show the cork and let him or her take their own conclusions, or not, is tantamount to the sommelier trying to further the damage. What if the host doesn’t look at the cork and is oblivious to the difference? Maybe he’s/she’s not a wine geek, but doesn’t deserve to be embarassed.

  11. What if the host is the one who had faked the bottle? Mike had an earlier ethicist question on his blog on what to do with guests who always demanded the best from a collector when they were guests and more than one person suggested faking it to please them if they wouldn’t know the difference.

    That being said, I would have discreetly whispered to the host something like “Sir, just so you’re aware the cork does not match the label” as I set the cork down next to him and leave the next move up to him.

  12. Take the bottle owner/host aside discreetly and inform them of the discrepancy, let them decide the course of action.

  13. I like Matt K’s approach the best. “Sir, just so you’re aware the cork does not match the label”. It would be interesting to see what the response would be. It would be interesting to see the response to Mr. Troutman’s approach too, but I’m sure that in real life Jon would be much more caring and concerned.

  14. The sunlight principle is always the guiding light.

    Those who favor the sommelier’s discreetly drawing the discrepancy to the host’s attention are right. The core of professionalism of any kind is honesty — honesty with oneself and with one’s clients. Not to draw the problem to the owner’s attention is in effect to connive with the counterfeiter. Deftly drawing it to his attention does the host, the sommelier, the restaurant and the table’s guests a favor. The good feeling that the act promotes may offset the disappointment of those waiting for a good drink.

    Not to tell the host is to suggest that the sommelier didn’t see the Rioja cork or did but didn’t care, raising questions about his own values and practices.

  15. Tell the truth, to do otherwise would make you complicit in the fraud.

  16. Simple. A good sommelier would have asked the patron to come and look at the bottle with him away from the table. A simple “I wonder if I could have your opinion about the wine?” would have the bottle-bringer realize the wine was not what he was supplying to his guests. At that stage wine and cork could be rejoined and a claim made against the seller of the bottle. The decision would be up to the owner at that point. A good sommelier would have offered an alternative from their own list at a reduced price especially if the client was a regular. The sommelier would create the story as to why the wine was replaced. Actually a very good question for master sommeliers!

  17. Lean over discretely and say, ‘sir next time better change out the cork as well.’ I mean let him know you’re not a complete tool. But don’t be so rude to spoil to the guests their chance to taste a ’47 Lafleur. Yikes!!!

  18. The integrity of the Somm is at risk here. To not call the host’s attention to the discrepancy might lead one to believe he doesn’t know his job. And the integrity of the host might also be at risk.
    Yes, the problem should be pointed out… discretely. Perhaps there will be a larger tip for the Somm as a result.

  19. Hi all –

    Thanks so much for these comments. I think it’s been a really good discussion, full of ideas on how to deal with a problem that has probably come up too frequently in recent years (and may continue).

    S Kos and Trey hit on two key points and approaches early in our discussion: the need for discretion and informing the guest/diner about the incident in case he or she would like to take some sort of action, be it legal or simply trying to facilitate a return, refund or exchange. I like the idea of pulling the guest aside and showing the cork away from the table and the other guests, which as Chris Robinson points out, would discretely provide the guest with a range of options.

    Howard – Honesty always scores 100 points.

    Hey Chuck Smith – hands off my Morgon! 😉

  20. Oh yes, so what did this somm do?

    In the face of such evidence, he or she discretely showed the guest.

  21. Also, FYI, there was a parallel discussion of this on the Cellartracker forum:

  22. […] The etiquette of pouring a counterfeit wine […]

  23. […] be interesting to see where it goes from here. Thanks, too, to my friend Dr. Vino for unexpectedly pinch-hitting with an installment of The Wine Ethicist on Friday. I am traveling through the weekend but will try […]

  24. […] With Mike Steinberger traveling, Tyler Colman decided to takeover the Wine Ethicist – by exploring the proper way to serve counterfeit wine. […]

  25. I guess my only question is whether the the ’66 Rioja had staying power or was it well past its drinking window? ’66 was a great year in Bordeaux so if it had been at least from the correct terroir then …..

    I once had the opportunity to taste both the ’43 and ’47 Margaux from our hotel cellar and they were still in good shape. Overall most wines will fail to deliver with extreme age. They can become very fragile once opened and decanted so you are never sure what to expect.

    There is so much money at stake now that counterfeiting is inevitable. Provenance is a good narrative but can it ever be foolproof?

  26. Pienso que es muy importante mantener la honestidad con los invitados.

    Por tanto, informaría al sumiller de la discrepancia entre corcho y etiquetas y después, probaría el vino, por supuesto!

  27. I think it’s very important to maintain honesty with guests.

    Therefore, the sommelier informed of the discrepancy between cork and labels and then prove the wine, of course!

  28. It’s simple, it’s a crime. It’s fraud. And in this case not a small dollar figure at stake. Alert the guest, call the police (not that they’ll run to your request these days.) Take a photo with your iphone as proof… To ignore it is akin to watching someone steal from an old lady and do nothing.

    Furthermore to allow this crime to happen and say nothing about it is only to be a part of assisting the grifters and fraudsters walk scott free. And we all know Rudy isn’t the only one out there. There are more people who need to be tracked down, it’s up to each one of us to become part of the solution of cleaning up this industry.

    Now the tact with which you alert the guest is something I hope your mother taught you. Kindness and caring for other people the way you would want to be cared for is always the best policy. Heck it should get you an awesome tip. And if not, know you’re mama would be proud.

  29. I’m with the majority here, I believe ethically the somm should discreetly inform the guest of his/her observation. Then let them decide whether or not to proceed.

    Great discussion.

  30. I can’t add to all the good advice already given in this thread, but instead, I have a question – so what actually happened? Did Sommelier brought that to the attention of the guest? What happened in the end?

  31. I read an article recently claiming that 95% of collectable wines being sold in Asia are counterfeit.

    From what I can tell, counter-measures are starting to become available to the average collector.

    I recently joined because they provide high-resolution images for many wines and I use them to check against bottles I already have or am planning to buy.

    Are there any other resources out there for us collectors to combat this problem?


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