It is almost antithetical to mention the importance of provenance of a fine wine. Fine wine, by its very name, implies pedigree. Yet, more than a few wine buyers (large and small) have been duped into buying fake wine. In wine trade, provenance refers to whether one could accept the label of the wine at face value, and how well a wine has been taken care of after it left the original châteaux where it was made.
Rule 1 Always know where the wine comes from
While all Bordeaux branded wine supposedly originates in Bordeaux, a few famous cases of wine fraud in recent years have shed light on the underbelly of the wine trade. It is an unspoken-of world where unsavory characters spare no effort and money to manufacture fake wine, due to the high demand for truly great Bordeaux wine and the limited supply (by nature) that has occasionally exacerbated the imbalance of demand and supply.
Our founder likes to tell a story of how he discovered the existence of wine fraud by accident. In the early 2000s, he developed a taste for Châteaux Ducru-Beaucaillou before Robert Parker Jr. sang the praise of this hidden gem. After Parker's enthusiastic endorsement, this wine became nicknamed a "super second growth". It was even suggested that it warranted a first growth rating if a re-classification were in the cards. Without much fanfare, Ducru-Beaucailou saw its retail price more than doubling in less than 3 years. Enjoying this wine to the point of always wanting to share with friends at dinner, he used to bring a bottle without fail. One night, his dinner host decided to surprise everyone by buying a bottle from a local wine store so there were two bottles of Châteaux Ducru-Beaucaillou for that evening. No one anticipated that it was not to be the case. The two bottles, while of different vintages, tasted not at all recognizable to be from the same chateau. Upon close inspection, small print errors were identified on the label from the local store, even the bottom of the bottle had a different curved shape and mistaken spelling in the chateau's name. A fraudulent bottle was identified. The local store, a supposedly trusted name in the wine trade, knowingly or unknowingly, had duped its customer by selling a fake bottle of a super second growth.
If our story intrigues you, you should read the famous case of a wine swindle as told by the Guardian newspaper of London. Here is the same story as told by the New Yorker, identified as "the largest case of wine counterfeiting in history". A new documentary on wine fraud and counterfeiting, titled Sour Grapes, was released in the summer of 2016, now available on Netflix. This is a movie every wine collector should watch. Wine Spectator recently ran a story on a wine collector, Jeffrey Gundlach, alleging fraud committed by a Napa wine merchant. The story never ends! Caveat emptor!
Robert Parker Jr., the now-retired American wine critic and authority on fine wine, wrote in his tome on Bordeaux: "... few American wine merchants, importers, wholesalers, or distributors care about how wine is stored." While he gracefully acknowledged that "this attitude ... is fortunately changing", there is no denial that lack of care remains a problem. A wine buyer today may see a well-decorated, air-conditioned wine cellar-room in a big store, what he/she won't see is how the wine has been handled behind the scene, nor how the wine took the routine from a chateau to the store.
Rule 2 Fine Bordeaux wine doesn't like to travel
There are two elements to this rule: 1) how much travel does a wine endure; 2) how does a wine travel.
If a buyer acquires a wine that has been out on the market for years, he/she really doesn't have a way to find out how much travel the wine has endured. If it is a sought-after premier brand, the chances are it has traded hands multiple times. Our logistics partner in Bordeaux has told stories of how sometimes a bottle would leave the bonded cellar for a far away destination, and return to the Bordeaux market after several years, thanks to the barcode tracking system in place today. We shun such well-travelled wine as a practice of quality control. A wine that has made port calls to places like Dubai, Hong Kong, or Singapore (all major wine transit points) is not the wine we seek. Whenever possible, we prefer to buy wine at en primeur, or ex-chateau (directly from the chateaux cellars). Ex-chateau access for sought-after wine, years or decadeds after release, is what sets us apart from our competition.
Then, there is the shipping method when a wine has to travel the world, or half away around the world in most cases. Sitting in a container ship or on a truck and being rattled for thousands of miles is the last thing a wine needs to endure. However, to reach its ultimate consumers, wine has to make the inevitable trip. A wine merchant worth his salt will endeavor every step along the way to minimize the physical stress being put on the wine. Some of the things that reputable wine merchants do include shipping fine wine only in temperature and humidity-controlled container and minimizing the loading and offloading steps in the logistics management. You should not assume large importers or merchants transport their wine as they are supposed to do. One very large importer who handles over 1500 containers of wines (the equivalent of 18 million standard size bottles) shipped into the US each year, once admitted that only about 60 containers were ever refrigerated to keep the shipping cost low. Think about that! How do you even know the wine you buy was transported properly? Our suggestion is get to know your wine merchant/importer and learn how they manage the logistics.
Rule 3 Always know how the wine is handled
After a trip, wine needs to rest in a temperature and humidity-controlled environment to recover from the journey. It is here where man-handling by the multiple parties involved in the distribution network that continue to cause wine to endure more stress. Our founder has retold the story of how he once found a fifth growth Bordeaux on the shelf of a wine shop in Upper East side of New York City. He asked for a full case of it. The clerk went back to the storage room, an area clearly without any air-conditioning. He pulled a case sitting on the floor out. Half of the case turned out to have aged faster than its vintage would have implied. While not a disaster as the wine was still delightful to drink, but it did not have the potential to be cellared for many years to come.
How do we ensure the provenance of the wine we sell at Laguna Cellar? We only source our wine from reputable and well-established negociants in Bordeaux, and from the châteaux occasionally when necessary. All our wine are received in Bordeaux at a bonded warehouse approved by French customs authorities, with each bottle inspected by experienced wine trade professionals at the warehouse, and each case tagged and photographed to ensure the chain of custody. Then our wine are shipped directly from Bordeaux into our warehouse in southern California. When we say our wine has provenance, we are actually guaranteeing that our wine has impeccable provenance.
What are the telltale signs when the provenance of the wine may be in question? Number 1: price. Bordeaux is a close-knit small world. Most negociants have the same access to the same wine at the annual en primeur (futures) events. Most negociants have long-established ties with various châteaux, some even have cross-ownership both ways. This system, while some may complain as a interlocking trust, almost guarantees similar purchase price for all the negociants, except a few with the highest volume commitment year in, year out. A smart wine buyer needs to ask these questions when encountered with an exceptionally discounted wine: where is the wine seller getting his wine from, how is he able to price his wine below everyone else, how is he going to make a living, how expansive and deep is his portfolio of wine offerings that conveys credibility. Like they say, when it sounds too good to be true, it usually is.
Once the provenance of the wine is not in question, you should know how to store the wine.