Sunday, December 22, 2013

Thoughts on the Kurniawan Verdict

Rudy Kurniawan is guilty, but there is plenty of guilt to go around. 

If you haven't been following it in the press, Rudy Kurniawan, the wine counterfeiter, was found guilty last week on mail and wire fraud charges.  He will be sentenced in the spring.  It's really a fascinating story, and has some lessons in it for any who care to learn them. 

1.  Do Your Homework. 
One of the big "A-ha!" moments in the discovery of the fraud was when Kurniawan tried to sell wines from a vintage that never existed.  Laurent Ponsot, one of  the people instrumental to the prosecution's case and who has been dubbed the "new Sherlock Holmes of wine," testified that Kurniawan placed for sale at auction bottles of his family's label from vintages years before his grandfather had purchased the land.  And Mr. Ponsot wasn't the only one.  Other vintners disputed whether or not vintages he sold were ever produced as well.  I'm not just offering advice to would-be criminals here.  The people who were all set to pay exorbitant sums for these wines, or the auction houses who were ready to sell them, probably were as unaware of these discrepancies as the man who counterfeited them.  Which leads me to my next point...

2.  If People Want Something To Be True, They Will Believe it, Evidence To The Contrary.
Part of the problem with this case is the gullibility of the buyers.  All of a sudden, some young kid pops up on the scene, flashing a taste for the good life and pouring rare, old wines, and nobody gets suspicious?  Seriously?   People were so eager to believe that these aged bottles were popping up on the market, that "Um, well... um... I'm Asian and my dad's rich?" was a suitable answer to the question "Where did you get your hands on these?"  Obviously, people did get suspicious, but the fraud continued for some time before people became suspicious enough to start looking at things with a critical eye.  Which plays into another pointer...

3.  Don't Be Greedy.
Kurniawan could have probably gotten away with it had he not been so damn greedy.  His frauds were in furtherance of living a posh and unearned lifestyle.  Had he been more modest in his aims, he quite probably would be free today.  I mean, think about it.  How much bogus juice do you have to pump out to get your house raided by the FBI?  The astonishing volume of rare wines Kurniawan counterfeited directly led to his capture and prosecution.  And his need to be seen and recognized by the wine world's cognoscenti made him a very visible and easy target.  A more modest and anonymous criminal might still be mixing forgeries in his kitchen right now.  Because, let's face it...

4.  There Is A Lot Of Fake Wine Out There
In a way, Kurniawan's prosecution is an obvious warning sent by the world of wine to the multitude of counterfeiters out there.  Both sides of this court case have never disputed what a widespread problem forgeries are.  In a way, these forgeries are an almost perfect crime.  They bring in huge sums in return for relatively small expenditures, and frequently go undetected by the victims.  Because the wine in question is seldom consumed upon receipt, and sits as a trophy or an investment in a dark cellar somewhere, and may be flipped from collector to collector several times, the crime can go long undiscovered, and the criminal will be long gone before anyone realizes they have been ripped off.  And even then, it may not.  Who really knows what to expect when they open a bottle of Burgundy from the 30's?  Could you, or anyone you know, tell the difference between a clever forgery and the real McCoy?

There's a lot of big, big money flying around in the world of old and rare wine auctions, and each time an oenophile millionaire bids up the price of these items, they make this a more inviting environment for fraudster criminals.  I know that sounds a lot like blaming the victim, but the fact of the matter is, scammers are always looking for an easy score, and rare wine auctions are a target-rich environment.  See point #2.  But one of the things I wonder about these guys who are throwing down ten large on a bottle is, considering the problem the wine world is having with fraud, don't they know that...

5.  Provenance Is Everything.
Seriously.  Who spends this kind of money without establishing some sort of chain of custody proof of where this wine came from?  You just take someone's word for it?  Wow.  Can I interest you in some beachfront property in North Dakota?  It's legit.  I promise.  This whole criminal case makes me think that there are a lot of people who are not doing the due diligence required, not the buyers, not the auction houses acting as intermediaries.  See #1, and #3.  Determining the legitimacy of an item begins with determining where it came from, and where it has been for all these intervening years.  Would you but an attic's worth of art without sending in an expert to validate that it really was painted by Picasso?   See #2.  It is a shocking thing to say but I'm beginning to believe that...

6.  If You Want A Collection, Start Building It From Scratch.
The prevalence of forged wines is making me think that perhaps the best way for a collector to build a collection is the old fashioned way: buy wines on release, and put them down.  If you can't reliably source these wines, don't buy them.  The good thing is, many producers are now incorporating several anti-forgery measures into their packaging, because counterfeiting is not limited to aged wines.  Buy stuff from a reputable retailer with whom you have a relationship, so you know you have the genuine goods.  Counterfeiting has eroded public trust in aged wine and the auction market.  I was in a wine shop in France last year that had millions upon millions of dollars in inventory, most of it antique, crammed into a space the size of my garage.  I asked the proprietor how long they had been in business.  12 years.  Where did the wine come from?  Auction.  Ah.  Well, I'm not really in the market to buy 30 year old bottles that cost more than two first-class round trip tickets to Paris, but if I was, I'd be buying them from a cellar where I was assured that they had been purchased 30 years ago, and have been comfortably sleeping in place since.   But more to the point, even though I understand that the super-rich are quite different than you and I, and have different tastes, I have to wonder...

7.  Who Wants To Drink This Crap Anyway?
Really.  I can't be convinced that a wine produced in the 1920's is going to taste very good.  Sure, my experience here is limited, and the oldest wines I've had were only 40 or so years old, but who wants to taste an 80 year old wine?   We aren't talking about Port or Maderia or Sauternes here, either.  We are talking about Pinot Noir.   And I am aware that while the Burgundies he sold are getting the press, a lot of the wine Kurniawan forged was Bordeaux, which does have a presumably lengthier window of drinkability.  But still.  I guess that a lot of the people wealthy enough to buy wines like these are older than I am, and that #6 may not really be an option for them.  I just honestly can't understand the seduction of a wine that has this kind of extensive age on it.  I've had 12 year old wines that I felt were over the hill, I can't imagine what an 80 year old bottle must be like.  It seems to me that the appeal lies chiefly in displaying the item in question, more than in actually drinking it, in which case, an empty bottle might do just as well.   Which leads me to wonder...

8.  Who Else Was Helping Him?
There are people out there who have access to empty bottles of rare wine.  Who is to say that once the original contents of these bottles are consumed, the bottles are not "recycled" by the unscrupulous?   And while Kurniawan had some obvious gaps in his intel, he also put up for auction some bottles that were known to be coveted in certain circles.  I have a hard time believing that this criminal, somehow unlike other criminals, operated in a vacuum, flying solo, without the aid or assistance of others.   I suspect that there are people in the wine world who have the contempt for people wealthier than they that is bred by suffering the whims of millionaires.  How attractive to them might such a forgery scheme be?  Many of the comments on many of the news stories covering this case can be summed up as the all too predictable sentiment of  "Oh, those poor millionaires.  Boo-hoo.  Ha-ha."   The ultra-rich get little sympathy from people who simply can't conceive of spending a semester's worth of college tuition on a single bottle of wine.   So I don't see it as being all that improbable for a sommelier somewhere to recycle a bottle to a forger for a modest gratuity.   Which leads to  #4.

All of these things do lead to a lot of negatives for the wine world.  Exposing the fraud of Kurniawan exposes a phenomenon that is undermining a lot of honest and profitable businesses.  And while a lot of people have little sympathy for a bilked millionaire, it is important to remember that fraud is fraud is fraud, and the wealth of a victim doesn't determine the criminality of a crime.  I can't repeat that loudly enough.   A FRAUD IS A FRAUD IS A FRAUD.  And Rudy Kurniawan is a criminal.  And he's going to get punished.  But it is germane for us to examine a culture that has made this fraud so easy and so lucrative.  Without asking the right questions, the wine world can expect to see more of this type of fraud.  And it won't be stopped simply by sending one flamboyant criminal to prison. 


  1. I was with you, until Item 7. So you have little or no experience with old wine, do not know what it tastes like, but can judge whether Bordeaux or Burgundy has a longer drinking window and whether wine this old is worth drinking??

    That seems to me to be akin to someone saying that he has never had champagne, but knows it is not worth drinkng, nor better than California Sparkling wine. Blanket statements made without the benefit of experience do not reflect well on you.

    Wine this old is not to everyone's taste, but drinking it can be a transformative experience. The first horizontal tasting I attended, in 1976, was of 1929 Grand Cru Burgundies. It cemented my passion for wine, which has ended up being both a vocation and an avocation.

    In my opinoin. opining from ignorance is a painful form of hubris.

  2. Well, Keith, first off, I'd like to thank you for reading, and taking the time to respond

    I knew I'd possibly ruffle a few feathers with this piece, as it is an editorial, not just a simple review, and when I tread into the realm of opinion, there is always the chance of getting someone riled up. You know what they say about opinions...

    Consider yourself fortunate to have had the chance to taste wines with such age on them. But, remember, this tasting you were fortunate enough to attend featured wines that were only 47 years old, which is not much older than some of the aged wines I have had the chance to taste. Unfortunately, due to the inflationary influence that millionaire wine aficionados are having on the fine and rare and old market, I probably never will have the opportunity to taste a wine so rarefied as the ones discussed in my article. I also suspect that, even in 1970's dollars, the wines you tasted were probably still within the realm of possibility for a person of ordinary means to obtain. I remember when 1er Cru Bordeaux were affordable (special occasion, yes, but still affordable) enough for a middle-class person to purchase for Easter or Xmas dinner.

    I HAVE tasted aged wines, and I do not find them much to my liking. In MY experience (admittedly limited in scope), having tasted wines that were over the hill after 30 years, I seriously doubt that the number of bottles that will be pleasurably drinkable after 70+ years of age can be very great. And this is an opinion that has been confirmed by friends and colleagues who have had the opportunity to taste many more aged wines than I have. For non-fortified, dry wines, I remain unconvinced that they have a drinkability window that stretches to eternity. A good friend spent a week's pay on a half bottle of Ch. Margaux from the 50's and was horribly disappointed. I've met winemakes who have cellars that hold wines from before the Great War, and they admit that they are a neat thing to have in their library, but are basically undrinkable. So, I don't feel that I am alone in this opinion.

    I stand by my assertion that many of the people who are buying the wines originally discussed in the article are in fact purchasing trophies or investments, not wine that they intend to enjoy. I may be entirely wrong on this point, as I do not personally know any billionaire wine collectors, and who knows, they may pop these suckers open with the carefree attitude I use when opening a can of beer. If so, I gladly accept their invitation to come and taste, whensoever they deign to extend it.

    But it is worth mentioning, Kurniawan was not busted by anyone who tasted his fakes and declaimed them as imposters. He was undone by labels, not by a panel of tasters. Which underscores my point that few people can really know what to expect when they roll the dice on a bottle of this age.

  3. I ran across this article regarding the subject, and felt that it was germane to the discussion:

  4. A reader sent this in by email, and I thought that it deserved publishing here:
    "I have drunk more than two thousands wines aged with more than 70 years. I collect them and I drink them.
    Wines of the 19th century are absolutely fantastic. And the ones who deny the ability for wine to age do not understand wine and should not express an opinion which does not correspond to reality.
    All my process of buying is serious, taking in account at every moment the risks of fakes, and taking a decision which seems to me an intelligent decision.
    In a world of huge demand for the trophies wines which I have drunk and justify their high price by their taste, nothing allows you to criticize true amateurs who use their money as they wish, with a complete sincerity in their approach. "