Operation “Bad Tuscan”: Counterfeit Luxury Wine Ring Broken by Eagle-Eyed Caribinieri in Year-Long Investigation

Italy’s renowned caribinieri are admirably sharp detectives of stolen or falsified Italian goods, be it Gucci counterfeits, Renaissance oils, antiques or, indeed, the finest drink. . It was therefore with a minimum of quiet celebration that two eagle-eyed financial police officers stumbled upon a recent and suspicious case of Bolgheri Sassicaia – a so-called “super Tuscan” wine from the famous Tenuta San Guido winery which is retails for around $ 400 a bottle. According to Florentine prosecutors who announced the case, police officers literally found a case lying on the street in Empoli, Tuscany. Two cell phone numbers officers found on a note inside the case led to the investigation.

The ring had a wide and professional reach: Customers in Russia, Hong Kong and China had ordered – in the past – credible cases of this product. The nominal wine inside the bottles masquerading as real was vinified in Sicily, a terroir about as far away from Tuscany as possible and still produce something that passes for Italian wine and a location for some of the oldest and most practiced criminal families in the world. The ring had the cases and labels made in Bulgaria, again, a place of Eastern European criminal families with superb technological capabilities and tentacles of influence reaching Western Europe, and the bottles were coming from Turkey.

Fortunately for the Italian Guardia di Finanza and for the Tenuta San Guido winery, investigators were, according to Florentine prosecutors who will prosecute the suspects father and son, able to prevent some 4,000 bottles from reaching the market. During the police raid on the warehouse where the two suspects were labeling bottles to be marketed, the labels affixed came from the famous 2015 vintage, recently ranked “best” red in the world by Wine spectator.

Financial Police Colonel Dario Sopranzetti said the suspects were producing some 700 files a month, and added that his investigators had not yet determined how long the operation had been going on. From telephone interceptions during the investigation, detectives were able to determine that the current charge was destined for South Korea, at an extremely suspicious bargain price of 500 euros per case. Normally, Bolghieri Sassicaia cases sell for between 1800 and 2400 euros for twelve bottles. The market value of the 4,000 bottles seized, or about 330 cases at a 70% discount from the counterfeiters, would have been approximately $ 170,000. Assuming a median price of $ 2,000 per case, if that price is now findable, the market value of 330 cases of the real thing would have been between $ 600,000 and $ 700,000.

Colonel Sopranzetti admired the quality of the treatment of counterfeiters during the press conference: “The bottles and the packaging were perfectly identical to the originals”, he declared. “Even the weight of the tissue paper was the same.”

In other words, the counterfeiters were sophisticated enough – and the operation was meticulously planned enough – to have delivered similar “outside” packaged value to their customers, if not in the actual product in the bottles, than the real Tenuta San Guido the winegrowers do it. The attention to detail of the counterfeiters testifies to their thoroughness and the fact that the operation was several times larger than them. Eleven other suspects are currently under investigation but are not yet under arrest.

Frankly speaking, it looks like there is more to come in the highly entertaining “Bad Tuscan” operation. Perhaps the most interesting question that remains unanswered is one that will hopefully be asked of counterfeiters, and that is: why do they price their product so strangely low?

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Elisha A. Tilghman

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