DNA Could Foil Phonies

By Karl Klooster

Incidences of wine counterfeiting have cropped up with ever-greater frequency in recent years. Little wonder when one considers that a.) some wines command astronomical prices and b.) there are always clever people in the world with devious minds.

Fraud has manifested itself in a variety of ways ranging from labeling wines as something other than what they are, to counterfeit labels falsifying older vintages, to removing great wines from the bottle and replacing them with lesser ones.

An example this writer encountered some years back involved an unscrupulous individual who used a large syringe to extract expensive, older wine from the bottle through the cork and refill it with a younger, cheaper wine of the same type.

A Long Island company seems confident it has invented a foolproof answer to all this illegal tomfoolery.

Applied DNA Sciences, Inc. of Stony Brook, New York describes itself as a provider of DNA-based security solutions. The company’s patented botanical SigNature DNA markers protect products, brands and intellectual property from counterfeiting and diversion

These forensic markers can be added to printing inks, paper or other packaging materials as part of the normal manufacturing process. They can then be used to authenticate products in a unique manner that is nearly impossible to copy.

Applied has just announced a partnership with a nearby winery, Paumanok Vineyards, to put their identification program into the public marketplace for the first time.

Located on the North Fork of Long Island’s Wine Country, Paumanok is a 26-year-old estate producer whose most recent releases of Bordeaux-varietal reds and French varietal whites range from $19 to $75 per bottle.

The two companies plan to introduce Applied’s DNA markers this month with one of three wines that will carry specially designed labels. All of them are limited production and at the higher end of the winery’s price spectrum.

Released at the end of June was the Paumanok 2008 Late Harvest Riesling, an example of the German variety’s Auslese style, with 9.7 percent residual sugar. Only 157 cases were produced at a retail price of $27 per 375 ml bottle.

The other two wines are Paumanok’s 2005 Tuthills Lane Vineyard Merlot (205 cases, $60 per bottle) to be released later this year and their 2007 Apollo Drive Vineyard Limited Edition Petit Verdot (77 cases, $60 per bottle) scheduled for release in 2010.

Although this is the labeling application’s first-ever commercial trial, it is obviously a limited one that serves as much to generate publicity as prove the concept’s viability. Regardless, there appears to be no reason to doubt it.

On the CSI TV series, lab techs routinely match up human DNA from a single hair follicle or scrapings from under fingernails. These may be fictional dramatizations but they’re based on factual reality.

Application of the staggeringly sophisticated analytical procedure has worked flawlessly time and time again, resulting in the indisputable identification and matching of both people and plants.

When the technology reached the point where it was possible to compare plant DNA with precision, viticulturalists at long last found the mother grape from which Zinfandel sprang. Numerous other vine origins have been properly identified as well. 

Given this track record, it appears likely that ultra-premium producers will give serious consideration to such a seemingly indisputable method of authentication.

The costs to implement this program have not yet been announced. But even if they prove too expensive for most wines, those in the rare and collectible categories may justify the outlay based on risk limitation alone.

Even in these currently depressed economic times, the world’s most highly prized wines still command prices that make multimillionaires clutch their wallets. Let’s look at First Growth Bordeaux, probably the most coveted of all and the most closely watched.

Nearly written off last fall, the 2008 vintage is now being compared with 2000 and 2005. Futures prices have doubled just in the past two months. Chateaux Margaux, Latour and Lafite-Rothschild range from $3,600 to $4,800 per case.

Remember, this is for wines that won’t be released until 2011.

As for great wines that boast years of bottle age, the accolade-laden 1982 vintage is as sought after by collectors as any in the last half century. Lafite goes for $4,400 a bottle, while Latour is a relative bargain at $3,000.

With price tags like these, who cares about spending a few bucks more to soak the labels in some of the precious stuff and be able to guarantee that what it says on them is what is inside the bottle?

Only time will tell how well received applied botanical DNA markers will prove to be. Putting a shipment of top-tier wine to the test would be informative. But then merely knowing the wines carry this kind of security may send would-be counterfeiters scurrying elsewhere.

We’ll eagerly await the outcome and, if all goes well, perhaps kick ourselves for not getting in on the ground floor of their stock offerings.

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