In my last post, I wrote that I could do a whole month of posts about wine. Here’s another.
The Grape Wall of China blog recently assembled a page full of “[f]ake, funny, old or odd” wine labels. The labels are all entertaining, but as someone who regularly deals with counterfeit merchandise, the fake ones are what really caught my eye. Typically, the bottles of fake wine really do contain wine and not some other liquid. However, the wine inside the bottle does not match the label and it is usually low-end plonk that (literally) would not pass the sniff test.
The webpage focuses on two particular faked brands: the legendary French brand Château Lafite Rothschild and the Australian brand Penfolds. Both of these brands have enjoyed worldwide success and are well-recognized in China, which is undoubtedly why they have been counterfeited so often and in so many ways.
Some of the counterfeits are straight copies and are hard to tell apart from the real thing – like the 10,000 bottles of Chateau Lafite that police found last year in a single house in Wenzhou. Lafite only exports 50,000 bottles to China each year and nobody believed that 20% of the bottles were languishing in a house in Wenzhou. But the wine resale market is mysterious enough, and the fake labels good enough, that at the time the wine was seized, no one could definitively say the seized wine was fake.
Other fakes are more “inspired by,” which makes you wonder how hard these counterfeiters are trying – or how hard they need to try. No one who speaks English would think that a wine called “CHATEAU OFFICIALLAFITE” is legitimate. But if your market is people who don’t speak English and don’t know much about wine but have heard of Château Lafite Rothschild, then the bar is pretty low.
Unlike most consumer products, the world contains thousands of wineries and even more brand names. And for those who don’t particularly follow wine, maybe only a dozen are recognizable as wine brands. For Chinese people, the number is even less. Frankly, I doubt the average person in China could name a single winery, with the possible exception of Chateau Lafite. If they know anything about foreign wine, it’s related to geographic areas or appellations (Napa, Bordeaux, etc.). So one response from a foreign winemaker might be: why bother registering a trademark in China? Unless I’m selling thousands of cases, no one knows the name of my winery anyway so there’s nothing to protect. That may be true, but think about it from the perspective of a counterfeiter. They want the biggest return for the least effort. You’ve already built up some brand equity with your brand and your wine label, and even if only a few people in China might recognize your label, it’s a lot easier for a counterfeit wine seller to register your mark and sell “your” wine in China than it would be for them to create a new brand. And all of a sudden you’ve lost the ability to sell wine in China under your own name, which means you’ll need to rebrand to sell in China.
As usual, it comes down to the same issue in China: if you don’t register your name first, someone else will do it for you. The only reason not to register your wine brand as a trademark in China is if you never intend to sell wine there.