Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Knockoff Wines - Y Pay More?

My earlier post about a fictitious wine bar selling knockoffs of famous wines caused a stir on a couple of wine forums, in part because some people thought it was for real. The idea of mixing common wines with various additives to make a cheap wine resemble a more famous and expensive one is something that may not be too far-fetched. Is it really possible? Or feasible?

Here are some things to consider:

First of all, where would you draw the line as to whether or not a wine knockoff was legal? Obviously you could not represent it as being the same exact wine. But what if you wrote a note on the label letting buyers know that the wine in the replicated but differently labeled bottle resembled wine X?

For example, take the shelves at Wal Mart. They sell their own Equate brands of various items such as mouthwash and tell you on their label to compare the active ingredient in their house brand to the more famous Listerine brand. In the case of wine, isn’t the active ingredient fermented grape juice? Then both original and copy share the same active ingredient, don’t they? Imagine a bottle of wine with the Equate label on it, telling you to compare the active ingredient, pinot noir, to a Richebourg, and then asking, “Y Pay More?”

Secondly, assuming someone really could recreate a famous wine, would people even purchase the “generic” version? In my blog example, a glass of 1982 Chateau Petrus cost $18. A glass of the real thing would probably cost about 100 times as much, if not more. But even so, is it worth paying 1/100 the price tag of the real thing just to see what it tastes like?

There are plenty of counterfeit items floating around that were purchased both knowingly and unknowingly by people, often purely for snob appeal – Gucci bags, Rolex watches, etc., but those are intended to be sold as the real thing and are represented to buyers as being the genuine article. That’s obviously illegal. What I’m talking about here is a situation in which an inexpensive wine has been doctored to resemble a much more expensive wine but is represented as being a replica, not the original.

What snob appeal is there in drinking a knockoff wine? It’s not like you can put that wine into the more expensive wine bottle it is supposed to resemble, because in order to get that wine bottle you’d first have to have bought the wine (or else have gone rummaging through the trash bins of a Wine Spectator Grand Award restaurant) - in which case you wouldn’t need to buy the cheap stuff in the first place. It’s not like using a Nordstrom’s box or bag to use for wrapping a gift that really came from Big Lots. Bags and boxes are cheap and easily obtained; not so an empty bottle of ’82 Petrus or ’89 Romanee Conti.

Honestly, I really don’t think I would be interested in drinking a knockoff of something, no matter how cheap it was, or how closely it supposedly resembled the real thing. It just wouldn’t be the real thing and I would not be able to move away from that fact.

Thirdly, exactly how do you determine what the knockoff is supposed to taste like? I guess you could subscribe to the Wine Advocate, read Mr. Parker’s tasting notes for highly-rated wines and then try and come up with a wine that fits with what he says (but wouldn’t all your wines sort of have the same style, haha?). But if you wanted to be more specific and thus bought the actual wine you wanted to copy, there are still problems associated with that approach.

Two bottles of the same wine may not taste identical. So which one do you copy? But let’s say that the two do taste similar enough so that they have a distinctive enough taste that sets them apart from other wines. Even if you could replicate the taste of the wine at that moment in time (and you’d also have to do the same not only for the taste, but the aroma, the color, the texture, aftertaste, etc.), that doesn’t guarantee your replica is going to evolve in the same manner as the original. In fact, it probably won’t. So you would have to sell your replica by the glass within a very short time window before it veered away from the genuine article's development. After you’ve bottled it, a year or even a few months down the line, the juice inside may have changed drastically from when it was bottled.

Another issue: who would decide if your replica had crossed the border of legality? If you were not labeling it as the original but instead as something resembling the original, who would be called in to testify that they were close enough in taste that you are really producing a counterfeit? Or, to testify that what you are claiming to resemble the original tastes so awful that you are giving the original a bad name because people will think the original is as horrible as your replica?

By the time your case got to court, the evidence would have spoiled. Plus, what are people going to do, call expert witnesses to testify as to how close two wines resembled each other? Prosecution calls Robert Parker, Defense calls Jancis Robinson..

I’d like to think that even if someone could perfectly duplicate all the components of a great wine, there would still be something lacking in the copy. Like the alien invaders hatched from pods in the Invasion of the Body Snatchers, there would be something missing from the copy that the original possessed – the spirit, or the soul of the wine would be lacking. Not measurable, but nonetheless an integral part of the original that couldn’t be duplicated at any cost.

When I first envisioned my wine bar spoof, I pictured a bunch of trendy folks crowding into a trendy room, swirling and sipping their trendy glasses of trendy knockoff wines while making smart conversation with one another. But it’s not as easy as all that, as the above discourse pointed out.

Now another question: is the stemware used at Metamorphosis 88 made by Riedel? Only Sam Soon and Jin-heon know for sure.

1 comment:

Jack said...

Really, really close knock-offs might generate interest, but otherwise, no.

The closest comparison I can think of is the perfume industry, where knock-offs exists, but they seem inferior (though it's been many years since I smelled anything like these) and seem to be found in really awful Outlet perfume stores.