Californifakin’: How prevalent is fake California wine in China?

By Jim Boyce

The quirkiest notion from this story I wrote for Wines and Vines magazine about fake California wine in China? Californian wines from one region used to fake California wines from another.

Before I get to that, I generally found — based on chats with winery reps, officials, distributors, lawyers and other industry watchers — that California wines, including “cult” ones like Opus One and Screaming Eagle, are faked less than their French and Australian counterparts.

California “cult” wines are niche. They tend to attract buyers who know and appreciate them. In contrast, a brand like Lafite has entered the zeitgeist. It tends to attract people who want an association with a certain lifestyle and typically wouldn’t know a real bottle from a fake one. That’s what makes it so attractive to the unscrupulous.

Chinese wines also have bigger much problems with being faked than do their U.S. counterparts. Top-three producer Great Wall is regularly ripped off while smaller wineries such as Ningxia’s Helan Qing Xue and Inner Mongolia’s Chateau Hansen also report problems with fakes.

As for the California on California problem (my highlights):

There is also the recent recognition by China’s government — via the Administration for Quality Supervision Inspection and Quarantine — of Napa Valley as a geographical indication. This should offer more protection to Napa but might bring unexpected results.

“People throw the name Napa around like it’s Bordeaux,” says [Dan] Christensen [director of California vintner and exporter Thirvin].

“We find ourselves in an uphill battle trying to explain why our legitimate premium Napa gear costs 200% more” than wines from Lodi, Paso Robles or Temecula, which some merchants call “Napa,” too.

“This is happening more and more. As awareness of California and its most prestigious AVA increases, so too will misrepresentation of the names,” he says.

The story also looks at approaches to protecting brands, including legal ones like distinguishing between criminal and civil actions, realizing police need to be educated (the average officer doesn’t understand foreign labels let alone have the ability to spot fake ones) and the no-brainer of registering trademarks, as well as nonlegal ones, such as using social media to build brand consciousness. It also touches on the importance of positioning fake wines as a food safety issue, especially given the government’s increasing attention in this area (my highlights):

Growing consumer power seems destined to make opposition rather than resignation to the food safety situation the norm, and this will be of benefit to fighting fakes. This consumer and government attitude is evident from how many makers of baijiu, the potent white spirit drink with a far bigger market share than wine, have anti-tamper seals.

“China has set a priority on food safety,” says [Jorge] Sanchez [director of the U.S. consulate’s Agricultural Trade Office in Guangzhou]. “I believe if someone is using the label of another winery or refilling bottles, (the authorities) could see that as a food safety violation and take immediate action.”

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  1. Good practice is prevention. The harder the label is to counterfeit the better chance there is that they will do (counterfeit) some other brand. There are many security features to put on the label without affecting the design. Hologram – if you choose one with our new holographic QR code, invisible print with DNA mark, covert microdots and even color shifting ink – the label can not be replicated. Great advantage is that the label then becomes a Track and Trace element. So via your smartphone you can track the bottle, get information about the bottle, wine and producer, drive traffic to the producer or distributor, organize competitions, marketing and so on. Yes, the label WILL be slightly more costly. But it is up to the producer determine how much his brand is worth and most importantly how much financial damage can counterfeit wine do to the bottom line. I will drive the message home at the Wines and Vines Anti-counterfeiting event in Napa during August.