Sometimes you can identify a bad wine 50 paces away. Melbourne wine auctioneer Stewart Langton was closer than that, and it took him no time to work out that the six bottles of 1990 Penfolds Grange he was handed for auction in 1998 were suss.
On the back label, printed in red on grey paper, was the familiar message about decanting, with one exception. The word ''pour'' was spelt ''poor''. The barcode was also in black. If it had been the genuine article it would have been red (Penfolds introduced black barcodes with the 1991 vintage). On closer investigation, 10 packaging errors were discovered.
In its 39 years, this was a rarity for the wine: a bad Grange. It wasn't Grange at all. The creators have never been caught, but are thought to be Australian.
The Chinese are often less subtle about counterfeits. Last year bottles looking remarkably similar in appearance to Penfolds's premium red series were discovered at a Chinese wine fair under the name Benfolds. The quality of the wine inside was in keeping with the bottle's appearance. It, too, was fake.
Counterfeiting wine is big business. Many perpetrators get away with it because they rely on investors cellaring the wines.
It's a different story when there's no counterfeiting, but something doesn't seem quite right with a bottle of wine.
In London, for example, it's wise to steer clear of anything labelled ''Australian red wine''. Alarm bells should ring when the £5 wine offers no vintage date, no grape variety, nor winery address, presumably to protect the suppliers. A wine without an indication of pedigree is not likely to be a good wine.
Sometimes the brand name is a bit of a worry. A couple of years back, White Pointer lurked on retail shelves, a wine with a bright fishy underwater scene on its label. When refrigerated at 12 degrees, a 3D white pointer shark appeared to indicate the wine had reached the correct serving temperature.
Neat trick. But novelty wines don't tend to last long. People might like the gimmick and buy the wine once, but quality invariably determines what happens after that.
The marketing department at (the then) BRL Hardy outdid itself some years back with Wicked Wines, an attempt to woo the young female drinker. As a fashion statement, Envy chardonnay, Lust fruity white tingle and Greed shiraz were up there with Dame Edna, but not as classy.
Marketers can never predict what will take off, so they give almost anything a try.
During the wood-is-good drinking period of the 1990s, a couple of wood chips were dropped into a bottle of red wine to encourage an enhanced woody flavour. A music label was designed for wine with a whole lot of quavers and semiquavers only a musician could interpret (Brookland Valley Verse 1). Then there's wine label erotica: one featured the rippling upper torso of a male and a firm female bottom tattooed with the maker's name (Bimbadgen), while more suggestive poses involved writhing naked men and women (Moorilla Estate Praxis).
Now one or two of these, I would venture, were probably bad ideas. Just how bad depends on your point of view.
A bit like appreciating wine …
WINNERS ARE IN THE MAIL
Country Victorian restaurant The Royal Mail Hotel, in Dunkeld, has won Australia's Wine List of the Year Award 2012, organised by wholesale company Fine Wine Partners. Its sommelier, Sebastian Crowther, won the Judy Hirst Award as the creator of the wine list. A new award, for the best listing of Australian wines, went to iconic Sydney restaurant Aria - the public and wine community called for such an award. Other NSW winners were: Bloodwood in Newtown for the best small wine list; Rockpool Bar & Grill won two awards, for best aperitif and best digestif lists; Balla, at The Star was awarded best international hotel wine list; and Est. won best wine list by the glass.
A new wine label, Random Acts of Winemaking, is a collaboration between two university mates, Dan Buckle and Jim Chatto. Chatto is the winemaker for Peppertree in the Hunter Valley and, until recently, Buckle was the winemaker at Mount Langi Ghiran in western Victoria's Grampians region. He now works at Domaine Chandon. The first of their ''beautiful accidents, chance collaborations and inspired experiments'' is a 2010 shiraz blended from Grampians and Tallawanta (Hunter) fruit. They describe it as ''a conversation between these two great shiraz regions''. The two men have been friends since winemaking school. They have made two blends. I tasted the 01/10 release under the Peppertree label, $70 at Peppertree's Hunter cellar door. As the back-label states, it combines the spice and floral lift of the Grampians fruit with the depth and savoury elements of the Hunter fruit.
FLAVOURS OF ITALY
Amato's liquor store in Leichhardt has been trading for 35 years. The boss, Franc Gionta, has been there for 26 of those years. It's a family business, which supports all sectors of the wine trade, from big companies to the mum-and-dad boutiques which deliver their own wines then stick around to host a tasting. To celebrate the anniversary, it's holding an Italian wine festival on August 25 (1-5pm). There will be 70 Italian wines, beers and grappa. 267 Norton Street, Leichhardt, 9560 7628.
THE DRINKS ARE ON THE BANK
Citibank is promoting its credit cards with a free bottle if you dine in one of its partner restaurants, and pay with a Citibank credit card. More than 300 restaurants across Australia are participating, including Sepia, Pilu at Freshwater, Wildfire, District Dining and Flying Fish. You get to choose your bottle - from a small list.
I may be tempted by the Deep Woods Cabernet Merlot or the First Creek Shiraz.