What’s in the Bottle? Wine’s Crisis of Trust and How Blockchain Can Help
Blockchain is one of those things that everyone talks about but no one (myself included) really understands—like bitcoin or the stock market. I do understand, however, that blockchain is all about trust, and that’s the reason it’s going to revolutionize every industry. It’s also the reason it can revolutionize wine markets.
Fine wine has traditionally been bought and sold on large measures of trust. A seller offers a bottle for sale, most likely something rare, old, or from an iconic maker; provides a reasonably good story of origin (or provenance) to establish that the wine is authentic and has been stored correctly; and buyers line up to shell out thousands if not tens of thousands of dollars.
That has changed in the last decade.
In 2008, Benjamin Wallace’s true crime hit The Billionaire’s Vinegar (soon to be a movie starring Matthew McConaughey) brought to light the story of a German music manager and wine collector who allegedly duped other wealthy collectors into buying counterfeit wine (i.e., wine that has been adulterated in some way, often passed off under a more expensive brand), including several bottles he claimed belonged to Thomas Jefferson.
Wallace’s book became a New York Times bestseller and planted a significant seed of doubt in the minds of collectors everywhere.
Half a decade later, the wine world was again shaken when wine-collector-turned-wine-forger Rudy Kurniawan was sentenced to ten years in prison for defrauding high-end collectors to the tune of at least $20 million. (For the whole story, check out Peter Hellman’s new book In Vino Duplicitas.) In the wake of the “Rudy affair,” auction houses began to withdraw lots of wine of suspicious provenance. Lawsuits followed, and one prominent collector—billionaire Bill Koch, who fell victim to both Rudy and the alleged forger of Wallace’s book, Hardy Rodenstock—even began a crusade against fake wine, hiring a team of experts and spending more than $20 million of his own money to ferret out counterfeiters.
Trust in fine wine markets has never been lower, but blockchain has brought hope.
Meet Everledger, a London-based blockchain technology firm and the first company to secure a wine’s provenance via blockchain. After making its mark fighting counterfeiting in the diamond industry, Everledger made the jump to wine, and has partnered with renowned wine fraud specialist Maureen Downey (who played an important role in the Rudy Kurniawan investigation) to create the Chai Wine Vault.
Using Maureen’s Chai Method, which identifies more than 90 data points on a bottle, along with high-resolution photographs and ownership and storage records, Everledger creates a permanent, digital representation of a bottle on the blockchain. This permanent record acts as a verification point as the bottle changes hands. The blockchain is updated along the way so anyone who buys or sells the bottle can rely on trustworthy provenance.
This level of supply chain security is increasingly vital to every industry. That’s why SAP Ariba intends to join forces with Everledger. “If you can track and trace diamonds, you can track and trace anything,” says Joe Fox, SAP Ariba’s Senior VP of Business Development and Strategy.
“One of the things blockchain does is facilitate greater visibility and trust. In embedding it across our applications and network, we can enable supply chains that are smarter, faster and more transparent from sourcing all the way through settlement.”
Wine counterfeiting isn’t new—Pliny the Elder lamented the practice in first century Rome—but it’s certainly reaching new heights. Experts, Downey included, have suggested that as much as 20 percent of wine sold globally is fraudulent. An estimated 10,000 “Rudy bottles” are still in circulation, and just last week, police seized 6,000 bottles of counterfeit wine in China.
For wine markets everywhere, blockchain is a timely innovation that underscores the value of trust in any transaction.