A ship glides effortlessly out from mainland China into international waters under the cloak of night. On board are containers of wine. Who knows what is in the bottles. The shape might be familiar but the label is obscure - let's call it China Joe's Classic Red.
Further out another ship waits to rendezvous. On board are labels and a labelling line. In the hours of darkness China Joe's Classic Red becomes Chateau Lafite Rothschild or Chateau Latour or maybe even an Australian classic, destined for unsuspecting Chinese wine buyers or the auction houses of Hong Kong.
It is part of the increasing trade in fake wines that is causing serious concern among all the world's producers of premium wines.
It works like this. An original genuine bottle - let's call it Chateau Lafite Rothschild - is purchased and within a day is copied in every detail from the bottle shape and weight, identifying codes as far as they can be, labels and corks. It takes just 24 hours and is almost impossible to tell from the original without special equipment.
The fake wine, which can be anything, is then bottled into the copied bottles and a simple stick-on label that can be easily peeled off - China's Joe's Classic Red - is applied. That is the wine which passes through customs destined for the Chinese market.
But after the night-time rendezvous at sea, China Joe's Classic Red becomes Chateau Lafite Rothschild bound for some other port and market. Little wonder there is more Lafite '82 in China than was produced in France.
It is just one aspect of the increasing problem of wine counterfeiting in China, causing major headaches for the world's wine producers seeking to grow in the world's fastest growing wine market.
China - the king of the fakes and the knock-offs - has turned increasingly to wine as more Chinese begin to discover the finer pleasures of the grape. A bottle of Lafite or Latour now carries similar status as a Gucci handbag or Cartier watch once did.
In Hong Kong, where thanks to the removal of import tariffs, some of the world's biggest auction houses have a significant presence, more time is probably spent confirming the authenticity of wines than in gathering them in the first place. Thankfully most is identified and culled before sale.
At a wine fair in Hong Kong last year, a Perth-based wine marketer who did not want to be named said he was openly asked if he had any wines he wanted copied.
At a wine fair I attended recently in Guangzhou, I thought nothing of wine buyers asking the WA winery owners to sign their bottle. But this is not just a memento bottle being collected. It is to guarantee the authenticity of wine. Each different wine in the portfolios was similarly signed.
At the same fair a number of wines were on display with labels clearly designed to look something like the real thing in Australia. For instance from a distance a striking bottle of red wine looked almost identical to a Penfolds wine. It was only on closer examination that the name was Burstforth and when quizzed that it looked remarkably like Penfolds, the representative simply responded with a little smirk and a shrug of the shoulders.
Other bottles of supposed Australian and French wine had such pristine labels that you had to question their authenticity. Some of the more expensive wines were not available for tasting - simply to look at and buy. These included Chateau Mouton Rothschild and Penfolds Bin 707.
There are well-documented instances of wines called Benfolds, La Tour or Laffitte. The spelling approximations are clearly designed to confuse Chinese. At wine fairs some merchants openly exhibited counterfeit wine bottles, some of which are very poor imitations.
Supermarkets and shops, where most Chinese people go to buy their wine due to a lack of specialist wine cellars, are also full of fakes. Most are hard to distinguish so are unlikely to go beyond local areas, however some are very good and need a trained eye or special equipment to identify them as counterfeit.
In most cases counterfeiting is confined to the expensive wines such as First Growth Bordeaux and iconic Australian wines such as Penfolds Grange. There was a famous case some years ago when auction house Langton's discovered fake 1990 Grange, one of the greatest of vintages.
Penfolds started using laser etching some years ago but were more guarded in other practices they use. These have included special printing on the labels and indicators on the corks. Most consumers aren't aware of them.
But even the humble Jacobs Creek has been faked with dodgy bottles turning up in London.
Henschke, whose famous Hill of Grace is almost certainly a target for counterfeiting if it hasn't been already, has introduced a number of practices to protect the integrity of its flagship wine. These include DNA embedded labels, where the DNA of specific grape vines is implanted into the label, laser etching on the bottle and individual bottle numbering. Hardy's also use the DNA technology in the labels of their flagship Eileen Hardy wines.
In addition, some companies are using radio carbon dating to test authenticity and atomic spectrometry which analyses trace elements passed into the grape from the soil.
There have been cases where the labels of famous old wines have been carefully removed and placed on inferior vintages. Even having the original bottles is useful for counterfeiters wanting to fill them with inferior wines. There is a massive market for used bottles of famous wines that are refilled with junk. Empty bottles of 1982 Latour can fetch more than A$1000. The bottles are filled, recorked and offered at a discount to the real thing.
For the new rich of China, price is not really an issue and neither is it for government officials who don't mind paying large amounts for wine and other luxury goods with government money.
In many cases they are quite happy to buy wine knowing it is probably fake but in the knowledge that most people won't know the difference and it is good for image and prestige to be serving it at important functions.
But China is changing. Current consumption is around the litre per capita, putting it well down the list of global wine consumers. But it is changing fast and within a couple of years China will be the sixth biggest consumer of wine.Protecting the integrity of wine in this growing market will be increasingly important, especially for Australian producers seeking to capture more of the premium wine market as Chinese begin to understand and appreciate the quality of the wines.