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Tue, Feb 03, 2004 - Page 12 News List

Fake goods leave bitter taste in vintners' mouths

MADE IN `TORONTOW' Canadian wine makers say a booming sale of counterfeit ice wines in Asia is cutting into their revenues and damaging their good reputation

AFP , Vancouver, Canada

A boom in counterfeit ice wines sold in parts of Asia is threatening legitimate Canadian exports of the sweet desert wine to one of its biggest export markets, according to worried vintners and trade officials.

"Imitation is the highest form of flattery, but people are making ice wine in their garage and selling it in China. It's ridiculous," complained Charles Pillitteri, owner of Pillitteri Estates Winery.

Pillitteri's winery is one of Canada's largest estate producers of ice wine and the hardest hit by forgeries because almost 75 percent of his product is exported to Asia.

Ice wine is made from grapes naturally frozen on the vine and picked when temperatures fall below -8?C, usually in late December.

Canada, Austria and Germany are the largest producers worldwide of the novel desert wine which typically sells for between C$50 and C$150 Canadian (US$37 to US$112) for a slim 375 milliliter bottle.

Concern is mounting after Canadian officials found forged ice wines on the shelves of major retail stores in Taiwan and China nestling alongside bottles of real ice wine.

The bogus bottles had labels copied from bona fide products and were priced under US$15. They were made with grape juice and sugar or grapes frozen after being picked from the vine.

Some had dyes in them. Some were not even wines at all.

"It's consumer deception," said Bill Ross, president of the Canadian Vintners Association.

"You have counterfeit ice wine bottles with `Chilliwacko, Ontario' instead of Chilliwack, British Columbia, or `Elixir of the Gods, Torontow' with a picture of Whistler -- a ski resort more than 5,000km from Toronto -- in the background and maple leafs festooned all over," Ross explained.

The scam is seriously hurting sales of actual ice wines in Canada's biggest export market, damaging the reputation of all Canadian wines as well as increasing marketing and advertising costs to educate consumers about the sham, he said.

Canadian ice wine production peaked last year at nearly 2.5 million bottles and officials estimate almost 80 percent will be exported.

"It's a significant product in the Canadian wine industry and the one that resonates the most with international buyers. If you get buyers overseas who unwittingly drink fake ice wine and they don't like it, they may not buy it again and it hurts our reputation," Ross said.

"It's not like buying a fake Rolex watch on a street corner. People buy fake Gucci sunglasses in Bangkok knowing they're fake, but ice wine fakes are poor quality products that are attempting to represent the real thing," said Jim Stewart, owner of Vancouver's Paradise Ranch Wines.

Summerhill Estate Winery in British Columbia is just starting to export ice wine to Asia, but is already competing with knockoffs that mimicked their label.

"One fake had an inch of sludge at the bottom. I didn't even want to taste it. A fake Prada bag or watch won't hurt anybody, but when you have a food product counterfeited, there are no controls, you don't know what people are doing to the wine," said Summerhill's Alan Marks.

The Canadian government has pressed Asian officials to crack down on fakes and is helping the industry open up new markets to offset declines in Asia, but this takes time, and developing a new market for a niche product that most people have never heard of is costly.

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