Absence of accountability by wine merchants and e-commerce giant JD.com has driven a wine consumer in China on an exhaustive quest to prove once and for all that what he has spent thousands on were not in fact authentic clarets from Bordeaux first growth Château Mouton Rothschild but fake wines.
The mystifying case involving nine bottles of allegedly fake Bordeaux first growth Château Mouton Rothschild sold by a third-party wine retailer on China’s e-commerce giant JD.com is raising serious questions about e-commerce platform’s due diligence on vetting counterfeit products, despite the country’s newly introduced e-commerce law that would hold e-commerce operators and individual merchants jointly liable if caught selling fraudulent products.
Based on documents and images supplied by Mr Pan, the alleged victim of wine fraud living in China’s eastern Zhejiang province, to Vino Joy News, it highlighted a hollowing story of negligence and lack of accountability that made consumer rights protection challenging.
Pan’s story was first brought into media attention after a report by Chinese newspaper Jiangnan Times last week. Pan bought nine bottles of Château Mouton Rothschild grand vin for a total of RMB 54,856 (US$7861) from Beijing-based wine merchant Al-Sanawi on JD.com, China’s second biggest e-commerce platform, in March.
Four days later when Pan received the wines, suspicion on their authenticity was raised after the merchant refused to provide proper documents including importation certification and customs documents.
Pan then reported the case to consumer protection services in Beijing and asked for a refund, to which Al-Sanawi refused.
Adamant to defend his rights, Pan reached out to JD.com, the platform where the wines are sold, but on two different occasions in June, JD.com assured Pan that he should keep the wines for drinking because the wines have no problem.
Mouton’s different verdict
Frustrated by responses from Al-Sanawi and JD.com, Pan reached out directly to the first growth. Yet, the Pauillac first growth gave a very different verdict when Pan sent an emptied wine bottle of 2014 vintage for authentication. It’s understood the chateau conducted two evaluations on Pan’s wines, first via photos sent by Pan in May, which led to preliminary assessment that the wines are dubious based on label designs, according to a source with direct knowledge of the case when talking to Vino Joy News. However, serial numbers of 2005, 2009, 2010 and 2014 on the pictures matched Chateau records, according to the winery’s evaluation report.
The second inspection conducted at the chateau on July 7 by Magali Blanc on the 2014 vintage in the presence of notary confirmed what the chateau suspected in May, and the result is eye-opening.
The chateau wrote that based on appearance, the wine looks seemingly authentic. After close inspection, it found that the cork used on the 2014 vintage did not match records kept at the winery. This led it to suspect that the cork was once removed and the bottle was then refilled with foreign wine other than Mouton. The winery’s evaluation report in French and Chinese can be viewed below.
As the chateau didn’t evaluate the original liquid given Pan only sent emptied bottle and cork back, it was unable to conclude definitively if the original liquid inside the bottle was authentic or not. It’s worthy to note the bottle examined by the chateau was also broken, as Pan explained to Vino Joy News that after being told by delivery company UPS that he can’t send bottles of wines to France, he used a drill to drain the wine, causing a breakage at the bottom (see video below).
Due to shipping regulations in mainland China, delivery companies in general don’t allow sending bottles of alcoholic beverages outside of the country. A search on delivery services such as SF Express on a list of banned goods confirmed the shipping policy.
According to Pan, he still hasn’t received a refund from Al-Sanawi, as the merchant insisted that he had swapped authentic bottles with fraudulent ones himself after purchase. Pan denied any wrongdoing or foul play on his part.
JD’s role questioned
The evaluation result by Château Mouton Rothschild directly contradicts JD.com’s claim and begs the question how much due diligence the company is conducting given it extols itself as “an authenticity-guaranteed platform”.
This also raises questions about the e-commerce giant’s role in aiding counterfeit wines especially when China’s new e-commerce law stated clearly that all e-commerce platforms are jointly liable with vendors if fake goods were found to be sold on their websites. Previously only individual merchants were held accountable when caught.
When asked by Vino Joy News on JD’s role, the company replied in a statement that it’s investigating the case and has removed wines from Château Mouton Rothschild sold by Al-sanawi on its platform.
“We are still investigating the issue with the third-party store. Meanwhile, the store has removed all Mouton wine in the JD store. JD has a strict zero-tolerance policy to counterfeits, and strict regulations to punish stores that sell counterfeits. We will handle the store according to our regulations based on the investigation results,” the company’s said on August 4.
However, based on a recording dated July 27 between Mr Pan and JD.com, which is also reviewed by Vino Joy News, the e-commerce company still assured him that the wines are in fact authentic after Mouton’s inspection.
In the recording, the most stunning revelation is when Mr. Pan pressed JD.com customer service employee on the phone that, “If the cork is fake, would the wine still be real?” The JD employee answered impassively, “Yes.”
Different from other platforms, JD.com builds itself reputation touting on reliable and trustworthy products. Its founder and CEO Liu Qiangdong famously mocked its competitor Alibaba that the problem of fake products can be stemmed out by a programmer in one day, tacitly suggesting that Alibaba allowed fake goods to be sold on its site.
However, JD.com got into hot water as well. Three years ago, it withdrew lookalike Chateau Lafite Rothschild from its platform after being accused of selling fake wines.
Nonetheless, its counterfeit problem pales in comparison with another Chinese e-commerce platform Pinduoduo. Despite its pledge to clean up fake goods, the US trade office put it on a blacklist of notorious markets for violating intellectual rights.
On consumer end, most Chinese shoppers confessed that they feel daunted by the long and complicated process to defend their rights that often – even pursued -would hardly lead to anything.
According to a report by tech giant Tencent and Rong360 in 2018, a whopping 97% of Chinese consumers have said their rights were violated in 2018, but only 37% chose to defend themselves because they believed “no one would handle the complaints”.
There are no official reports on the scale of counterfeit wine in China both by authorities in China or in France either. In 2015, the France’s Comité National des Conseillers du Commerce Extérieur de la France (CNCCEF) conducted a report assessing the depth and scale of counterfeit wine production in China.
The report was however suppressed, reported Wine Spectator at the time. James de Roany, former president of the CNCCEF Wine & Spirits commission and a business consultant, gave his grim estimates. He told the magazine,“For every real bottle of French wine in China, there is at least one counterfeit bottle of French wine, and the situation is only getting worse. It’s enormous.”
At the time of publishing, Pan still hasn’t received a refund for the wines he purchased. The investigation is still ongoing and we will closely monitor it for future updates.