Blockchain extends its reach to eradicate fake wines and spirits


For wine collectors, provenance is everything. Given that up to 20% of all wine circulating in the world is considered fake, it is not surprising. In days gone by, detecting a fake Bordeaux required a good nose and an eye for detail. Now, thanks to blockchain technology, the problem is being solved at the root, or should it be from the vineyard?

Sommeliers, winegrowers, collectors and other connoisseurs of red stuff do their best to determine authenticity. From the weight of the bottle to the anomalies observed in the year of production, to the inspection of the glass of the bottle, the seal on the cork and the glue on the label, the smallest discrepancy can be the biggest red flag. But somehow, every year, thousands of bottles of counterfeit wine slip through the net.

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That is because wine forgers also make great efforts. Making a new bottle of burgundy disguised as a 60-year-old vintage is not an easy task. Nor is it always about the aesthetics of the bottle; taste is just as important, if not more so. Con artists have been known to recreate every note, using a hybrid blend of wines that mimic the taste of an original, like modern alchemists creating gold.

Because for some, gold is essentially what good wine is, and what counterfeits can become. In the last 16 years, the 150th of Burgundy, an index that tracks the prices of the most highly prized vintages, has risen by almost 450%.

Several popular fine-wine indices plotted side-by-side

A culminating renaissance of good wine occurred between 2016 and 2018 amid uncertainty about the presidency of Brexit and Donald Trump, which led some experts to speculate that investors were using wine as a store of value at that time, not unlike gold. The parallels between wine and gold do not end there. As an asset class, fine wines are similar to the precious metal, they are extremely rare, becoming rarer every time someone decides that their $300,000 bottle of 1947 Cheval Blanc is ready for consumption.

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Others have made the analogy, perhaps a little more cynical, that aged wines are more like the technological boom of the 2000s, where a „.com“ suffix could add an additional set of zeros to the company. Similarly, a vintage Hermitage label attached to any old plonk bottle could cost over US$10,000. Indeed, this happens all too often in the wine industry.

Fighting the counterfeiters

While actual estimates are low for obvious reasons, it is believed that counterfeit wines are a multi-billion dollar problem. Sour Grapes, a 2016 documentary, recounts the dramatic rise and fall of the prolific fake wine con man, Rudy Kurniawan, who was instrumental in creating the market for counterfeit wines, and its high prices. But while it is a notable case, it is only one of many in a large counterfeit racket.

And this is not limited to good wine either. A 2018 report by the European Union’s Intellectual Property Office reveals that in Europe alone, approximately EUR 2.7 billion (USD 3 billion) is lost annually due to the counterfeiting of wines and spirits.

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The market for illegal spirits is potentially a serious problem, with health complications and deaths from fake gins, vodkas and whiskies mixed with battery acid and even methanol, a toxic chemical used in antifreeze. Attempts to crack down on liquor fraud have not been without merit.