Vintners act to block counterfeits as China’s thirst for Canadian icewine grows

The Niagara peninsula, a flat strip of lush farmland that separates Lake Erie from Lake Ontario, feels like the Klondike right now, with eager farmers ripping out stately orchards of pear and peach trees to plant row upon row of grape vines on every possible scrap of soil.

Someday soon, the farmers may ring the doorbells in the little subdivision that crowds the fields in the village of Virgil, to ask permission to grow a few grape vines in their front yards.

In a field at PondView Estates Winery, Abe Wiens, who runs Vinetech Canada, pulls bundles of cabernet franc grape vine rootstock from a bin of water and hands them to two workers — dressed like bank robbers with sunglasses and bandanas against the dust — on a vine planting machine.

“We are planting cabernet franc for icewine production,” explains Luciano Puglisi, the owner of PondView. These vines will bear harvestable grapes in three years and business will still be booming, since well-heeled Chinese consumers have developed a prodigious thirst for Canada’s icewine in recent years.

But one thing frustrates the vintners: the proliferation of knockoff ice wine that they see at trade shows from crafty Chinese counterfeiters, who mix wine with sugar and then slap labels of fictitious Niagara wineries, such as “Ridgeside Winery” and “Golden Belt,” on the bottles in an effort to lure gullible Chinese consumers.

Tyler Anderson /  National Post

Tyler Anderson / National PostWorkers plant Cabernet Franc grapes that will eventually become ice wine at PondView Estate Winery in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont.

Plonk that masquerades as fine wine is a problem that has troubled wineries from France to California to Canada for a number of years, but today there is hope on several fronts that icewine producers in Ontario and British Columbia may be getting closer to protecting the authenticity of their pricey sweet digestif, which generally retails for $40 to $100 for 375 millilitres.

PondView this week became the second Ontario winery to adopt a French technology called Prooftag Bubble Seal. Perfected in Toulouse about a decade ago, the sticker is now used worldwide to authenticate everything from Chateau Lafite Rothschild to government documents, cosmetics and jewellery.

Each sticker features a serial number, a postage-stamp-sized silver square containing a random pattern of tiny bubbles, and a QR code.

Scanning the QR code with a smartphone brings purchasers to a website where they can click on an image of their bubble pattern — no two patterns are alike — to verify that the bottle comes from the vineyard described on its label.

Franck Bourrieres, a founder and director of marketing at Prooftag, said his company’s seals are trickier to counterfeit than a bank note.

“Every Canadian $20 bill is identical to every other $20 bill,” Bourrieres said. “If someone conquers the technology, they can print millions. But we can’t make two bubble patterns that are the same, no matter how hard we try.”

Pillitteri Estates Winery, Canada’s largest estate icewine producer, began using Prooftag on icewine it exports to China five years ago at a cost of about $1 per bottle, said Richard Slingerland, grandson of winery founders Gary and Lena Pillitteri and vice-president of sales. He said Prooftag took a while to set up servers in China that could verify the tags online.

Slingerland, who spends about three months of the year in China, selling wine, calls counterfeit icewine an epidemic.

Tyler Anderson /  National Post

Tyler Anderson / National PostMarcel Morgenstern, national sales manager at PondView Estate Winery, poses for a portrait at the Winery in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont.

“It was amazing to see all the Canadian products on the shelves at restaurants and wholesalers at five cities in China,” he said. “But unfortunately, half of it is not real.”

Several years ago, Pillitteri began selling icewine in bulk to a “virtual” Chinese firm labelled as “Ridgeside Winery” for sale in China. Mysteriously, Ridgeside’s orders declined from 10 shipping containers of wine a year to just one container a year. Then Slingerland went to the Chengdu Wine and Spirits Show and found the Ridgeside booth busier than ever, signing orders for icewine.

“We found out that they were making counterfeit,” he said.

Before the trade fair this year, Slingerland said he checked the Chinese government’s list of Canadian companies applying for permission to exhibit at the Chengdu show against lists of Canadian wineries, and had two wineries barred from attending, including Ridgeside.

A Google search of “Ridgeside Winery” turns up a website that initially looks legitimate. But many of the pages are filled with gobbledygook such as: “Time: namely suggestion dipe open ready-to-drink, drink a before freezing. Type: ice grape wine. Darfur: 100% grape varieties of darth vader.”

Thanks to work by Canada’s embassy in Beijing and consuls in Shanghai, Guangzhou and Chongqing, in partnership with the wineries, “the Canada-China governments have actively been removing the fake products from China’s shelves,” Slingerland adds.

A third front in the fight against counterfeit wine is the draft Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal, which defines icewine as “made exclusively from grapes naturally frozen on the vine.”

The Germans invented icewine, but these days they rarely experience the cold snaps needed to produce it, making Canada, by the TPP definition, the world centre of icewine. Vintners here hope the Justin Trudeau government inks the TPP agreement.

Mind you, in Niagara, which makes about 70 per cent of Canada’s icewine (the other 30 per cent comes from B.C.’s Okanagan Valley), producers are having a hard enough time cranking out enough of the real icewine to meet demand.

At Pillitteri on Thursday, Slingerland loaded 70 pallets of wine, filling three 40-foot containers and one 20-foot container with red wine and icewine (a one-day company record) bound for B.C. and then headed by ship to the port of Guangzhou in China.

Vineyards in Niagara also do booming business from bus tours of visitors from China; Pillitteri alone estimates it had 200,000 visitors last year.

“We even increased our quality and pricing and still sales go up,” Slingerland said. “They don’t want a $40 bottle of icewine. They want a $65 to $100 bottle of icewine.”

Tyler Anderson /  National Post

Tyler Anderson / National PostThe winery has come up with a novel idea to combat Chinese counterfeiters of Canadian ice wine.

PondView’s owner Puglisi, whose father Giuseppe began growing grapes here in 1974, opened the winery six years ago, and it sold 20,000 cases last year compared to 2,700 cases the first year.

Each May and November, he and Marcel Morgenstern, PondView’s director of sales and Puglisi’s partner in a nearby vineyard called Burnt Ship Bay, travel to the Interwine trade show in Guangzhou, southern China, to sell more wine.

“We’ve been growing at double digits. Our sales are growing faster than our production,” said Puglisi, just as the planters tell him they’ve run out of rootstock. 

He zips in his four-wheeler back to the winery, jumps in a van and roars down a country road, past endless fields of grape vines — and the site where a big new winery and distillery for Wayne Gretzky is being erected — to Vinetech.

In the nursery, a dozen Mennonite women in headscarves prepare rootstock for planting. Puglisi grabs a bundle of roots and jumps back in the van.

“We are definitely grassroots here,” he said. “Vertical integration is key for us. We control quality from start to finish.”

Morgenstern, 39, a tall, affable man with a slight lilt from his native Germany, later stands in a cooled room filled with oak barrels of wine stacked five high as he advances a theory for the Chinese thirst for icewine.

“The tourists get off the bus and I explain them about the grapes, and they are staring up at the sky,” he said. “I wonder: am I boring them? But they are just admiring the air because it’s so clear and blue and smog-free. The Chinese love Canada. They are buying Canada in a bottle.”

With the additional anti-counterfeit measures that Pillitteri and PondView are taking, one can only hope that more Chinese consumers who shell out for icewine will actually get a liquid made in Canada.

Financial Post

pkuitenbrouwer@nationalpost.com

Twitter.com/pkuitenbrouwer

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