Whines/Gripes: Buyer Beware 1: Counterfeit!

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Buyer Beware pt. 1: Quality is as quality does.

In early November 2012 police in Wenzhou Province China seized nearly 10,000 bottles of Chateaux Lafite Rothschild, but they suspect the stash of wine is counterfeit. Lafite is very popular among China’s nouveau-riche, but it is believed that up to 70% of Chateaux Lafite Rothschild in China is fake. If genuine, this particular collection could be worth up to $16 million (US). Wikipedia

From time to time stories and examples surface of counterfeiting, smuggling or deception in the wine world. All the time, really, certainly every few months. It’s not good. It’s not just the bottom feeder frenzy or amoral selfishness of the ethically challenged and how that sours the soul. Its a question of sharing an industry, tarnishing it and everyone in it; reminiscent of an Olympian being seen to be doing better than their peers, but who in reality is a drugs cheat; yet no-one raises an eyebrow. Preferable would be a paradigm, where abundance and pleasure are sought, at no cost to others.

There have been ‘a spate’ in the last few months. A spike. This murky new world still teaches one what to look for:

I was proudly shown 2 ‘dodgy bottle’ examples last Autumn. Intrigued, I lurched into detective mode; largely due to the manner in which the bottles in question were introduced to me. A single lady, very proud owner of her Veuve Clicquot Champagne, for which she boasted of paying a mere ¥350. That Champagne is never that price in Shanghai. Never. I wondered whether in reality it might be at best, a worthless fake, and at worst, a poisonous fake.

Intuition pulled me towards an assumption that it was either a fake or bankrupt, ancient stock.  ‘Sometimes price is a big clue,’ I had said. ‘Bought off TaoBao,’ she recounted. That made it worse from my perspective. Fewer safeguards. Unregulated and wild.

The labelling caught my attention and cemented my suspicions: yet the low price remained the biggest red flag. I played a mental game; of trying to see what wasn’t on the label. Clues for its authenticity.

‘I may be wrong,’ I thought to myself, ‘but I was sure that the entire word ‘Ponsardin’ should have been written on the label; it being a part of the name of the Champagne in question, yet it was missing; plus the paper and foil looked and felt of inferior quality. Could that just be poor handling or storage? Even so, who wants to pay ¥350 for a potentially damaged item? I thought of the adage: ‘If something seems too good to be true, it probably is’. I considered whether there are versions of the label which omit ‘Ponsardin’. Perhaps very old stock? I then shared with her my thoughts, reasoning and doubts.

She deflated a little initially; not that much. Her bargain may have had some of the sheen taken off it a little, but only in the way that so many people are happy to turn this kind of thing into a bragging right:- ‘I bought fake Dolce & Gabbana’ (and then telling everyone), “Yes it is a fake, actually, and I only paid X for it”. which I take to mean: ‘Aren’t I clever?’.

Turning a blind eye to criminality when it’s just a handbag, seems acceptable for the majority of Expats I talk to. Part of being in China. Almost a perk. So is it churlish of me to make a comment about it? If only that were all there was to it. We all know that outside of the inherent greed behind buying knowingly counterfeited or stolen goods (even if one’s conscience chooses to ignore it) there’s a bigger picture here of sweatshops, child labour and syndicated crime to consider. Add to that that probably, ultimately, fewer fashion houses will survive with fewer designs and less creativity down the line, making the very thing you gotta have, less available, and some preening ‘wannahaves’ might even take note.

No-one really wants to talk about that, in an ‘I must have it now’ society. That tells us a lot about ourselves. It happened to music; it’ll happen in fashion. Copycatting and fear have narrowed the creative output and we now get bland, pale facsimiles of music, trotted out and worthless to our souls (mine, anyway).

I have gone off a little tangentially here from the fake wine story but counterfeiting is, lets face it, not about looking after the best interests of the end user. It’s about conning people out of money without regard for the consequences: in this lady’s case her original conviction was one of authenticity; that it was a real bottle of Champagne. Someone wanted to con her or feed her desire to appear to have something other people did not, or had paid more for it than she. She certainly did not want to be conned.

That’s where the buyer beware element is so profoundly weighted against end users. Those kinds of ‘traders’ are setting out to con and have considered the best ways to do it to make the most money. End users have not put anywhere near that level of thought into their quest for a handbag or a bottle. It’s not a even contest (or an ethical one).

At wine fairs in China, merchants can be found openly exhibiting counterfeit wine, some of which are very poor imitations.

“At a recent trade fair in China, I saw merchants openly selling fake Lafite – as you would Louis Vuitton handbags in a market – in a small room next to the main tasting room,” said Simon Staples, buying director at Berry Bros & Rudd.

Counterfeits include bottles of Bordeaux that have been diluted with sugared water and had colouring agents and artificial flavourings added, before being sold for high prices.

Vintage wines sold for uncharacteristically low prices with brand new labels are a warning sign, as are bottles wrongly spelt “Laffite” or “Lafitte”.

Empty bottles can be bought online in China, sparking a trend for upmarket fakes housed in reused “grand cru” bottles filled with lower quality vintage Bordeaux.

The price should have been her clue, but clearly wasn’t. Then again, the price is never a clue for those who know the price of everything but the value of nothing.

When end users are accepting of the fakery at large on the streets of SH (as with so many fashion brands here) they often take on the persona of a group of childishly complicit naughtiness. ‘Quality is as quality does,’ as Mrs. Gump might have said.

next time ‘smuggled in’.


January 2013

more on this subject here

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