When consumers hear “counterfeiting,” they think of fake Rolex watches or Louis Vuitton handbags – not phony merlot.
But sales of counterfeit wines and spirits skyrocketed during the COVID-19 pandemic and have not slowed since. It’s now estimated that 25 percent of wines and spirits sold worldwide are counterfeit, costing the industry nearly $9 billion in annual revenue.
It’s no surprise people turned to alcohol in the face of a global pandemic, and with customers quarantined, online sales of alcohol hit record numbers. In Italy, one of earliest countries struck by COVID-19, online alcohol sales shot up by 150 percent during the pandemic’s first year; domestically, we saw an increase of 40 percent.
Unauthorized and other less-than-reputable dealers took advantage of this high demand, especially in developing countries where regulatory oversight is weak. Supply chain gaps were quickly exploited by counterfeiters.
Fake-beverage peddlers are no longer small-time crooks, although those still exist. In the 2016 documentary “Sour Grapes,” Maureen Downey – a global vino consultant regarded as the “Sherlock Holmes of wine” – notes that fraudsters use the same professional suppliers as “legitimate producers,” including expensive label-printing machines.
“This lulls vendors and consumers into a false sense of security,” Downey says.
So far, the rise in counterfeiting hasn’t affected Long Island wineries. “Not that I am aware of,” according to Kareem Massoud, winemaker at Paumanok Vineyards in Aquebogue and president of Long Island Wine Country (formerly the Long Island Wine Council).
Paumanok is an “estate bottled” winery, a designation only given to wineries that grow, ferment and bottle their products completely on-site. In short, Massoud controls all aspects of production, eliminating the risk of counterfeiters getting their hands on genuine Paumanok bottles or labels and filling them with fake wine.
Other Long Island wineries are taking innovative anti-counterfeiting approaches. Sagaponack’s Wolffer Estate Vineyard is making smart use of social media: With branded hashtags such as #summerinabottle, Wolffer CEO Max Rohn uses Instagram, Facebook and TikTok to monitor his wine brands worldwide.
Customers and retailers can use their social media to report anything suspicious directly to Wolffer – especially things that can’t be seen in a picture, like smell, taste and unauthorized sales channels. This type of customer engagement is invaluable; it was a complaint from a British customer that led to a big bust of counterfeit Yellow Tail wine in 2021.
There are also plenty of high-tech measures being used to fight counterfeiters – from an “electronic nose” to RFID chip technology, even DNA markers created by Stony Brook-based biotech Applied DNA Sciences. But these can be expensive, and they’re only effective until counterfeiters figure out how to circumvent them.
Local wineries like Paumanok and Wolffer haven’t seen the need for such technologies yet, instead relying on strict quality control, longstanding industry relationships and engagement with customers who know and love their products.
But another form of fraud threatens the Long Island wine region: outsiders mislabeling their wines as “Hamptons” or “North Fork” wines, even though they’re not produced in the region.
Long Island wineries fought hard in the 1980s to secure American Viticultural Area status for “The Hamptons, Long Island” and “North Fork of Long Island.” Under federal and state laws, these terms can only appear on a wine label if 85 percent of its grapes are grown in these regions.
But we still see mislabeled products on the market. Consider Hampton Water Wine, which is made very far from the Hamptons, in France.
Our local growers toiled so that “Hamptons” and “North Fork” would mean something in the wine world, and they do. But unless we stop those trying to cash in on these hard-earned reputations, that protection will be lost.
It comes down to a phrase we know all too well in this region – if you see something (or in this case taste something), say something. You can always email the feds or the New York State Liquor Authority, but start with the winery … they might even reward you with an authentic drink!