Found a deal on a nice bottle of wine in China? Don't be so sure

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This story is based on a radio interview. Listen to the full interview.

Audio Transcript:

Marco Werman: I'm Marco Werman, this is The World/
We've all gotten used to having a lot of what we buy come with a 'Made in China' label, and that includes the fake stuff. Luxury watches, designer clothing, top brand electronics. It seems China is infamous for mastering the art of mastering copies of anything. Attorney Nick Bartman has spent his career investigating counterfeiting in China. His latest focus is counterfeit wine. For the last few years, Bartman has gone undercover to study China's not-quite-legit wine industry.

Nick Bartman: I have different identities, nationalities. I have different websites. I prepare myself quite well when I go into these situations. So I went up to the wine-growing country, which is on the east coast, and then I just kept myself busy and amongst those types of growers to find out what they were doing and how they were working.

Werman: And when you go to the vineyard, how did you present yourself? "I am a magazine writer," what do you say?

Bartman: No, they see me as an investor in Chinese retail. Obviously, I need to look as if I'm a reasonably sized customer, otherwise they're not going to want to talk for long.

Werman: And you have to do this undercover, because counterfeiting is such a sensitive subject in China?

Bartman: For counterfeiters, when they know they're doing something wrong, of course they're going to have a pretty strong defense mechanism so you can't get through their firewall. But our job is to get through that firewall, by getting involved with them, going out for meals with them, drinking with them, spending days with them. Getting into a position where you start to learn their inner secrets, and that's what I did, and that's how I began to get my results.

Werman: So who is actually buying, or was buying, this fake wine? I assume there's still counterfeit wine being produced in China.

Bartman: China has been growing wine for 2000 years, but even today, it's not a drink of preference of many. The average worker, laborer, or farmer, never drink wine, whereas in other countries, absolute reverse. It's newer, rich, the middle management, business-type people, they'll be the buyers, and I think a lot of Western people don't know how much they know about wine. Some people say, "well, I know nothing about wine," but if you give them a bad one, they know about it. But China's not like that. Many people new to drinking wine didn't actually know what the taste should be.

Werman: Nick, you drank a lot of counterfeit wine in your research. What was kind of the range of taste among these fakes?

Bartman: Well, the standard taste was so dry that your tongue would stick to the roof of your mouth. You'd end up with a sort of red tannin around your lips and your teeth, and you'd end up with a world-class headache at the end of it, as well. So some of it was extremely obvious. There was some chemical wine, a liquid that is mixed to give a taste of wine by laboratory performance, and then had alcohol mixed in to it and so forth. Pour that into, let's say a napkin, you don't get any little bits of grape or anything... sediment at all. It's absolutely clear wine, as if it’s come out of a laboratory. That would be quite horrible. If somebody who says they know nothing about wine, if they tasted some of the wine I had to taste, they would immediately go, "there's something extremely wrong with this."

[Laughter]

Werman: Nick Bartman, attorney and expert in counterfeits. Thanks very much for your time.

Bartman: My pleasure.

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