It has been with much bemused glee that I have followed the saga of wine counterfeiter Rudy Kurniawan and his long list of easily-duped Bordeaux and Burgundy collecting clientele.
Here’s a quick shorthand for this scandal that has rocked the small but influential corner of the wine world, that of the big swingin’ dick 4-5 figure wine collector, a segment comprised largely of attorneys, doctors, bankers and those of other similar conspicuous consumption-oriented occupations. Rudy Kurniawan is a Los Angeles-based wine collector who, over the last ten years or so, built a reputation as an authority on big ticket wines from France, especially Burgundy. As his reputation grew he began throwing lavish dinners where bottles of decades-old Burgundy and Bordeaux wine would be poured and he used this to fuel his notoriety as a millionaire collector to consign millions of dollars of old, high-end collectible wine at auctions. The beginning of the end for Kurniawan was when he put up for auction a lot of very rare wine, including vintages from Burgundy producer Domaine Ponsot that never existed. The owner of Domaine Ponsot worked closely with the the FBI and Kurniawan was arrested last week and charged with multiple counts of fraud. Decanter.com covered the story well and you can read more about it here and here if you’re curious.
How Kurniawan was able to run this operation for so long is a testament to the sort of ask-no-questions attitude that pervades the peculiar world of collectors of wines whose prices explode into the stratosphere. This weird and furious world, originally fueled by arriviste Wall Street millionaires and now driven in no small part by the nouveau riche in Russia and China, has seen bottles of pre-World War Two Burgundy and Bordeaux which, by all reports, were already rare treats by the 1960s, routinely come up for auction, as do entire cases of Domaine Romanee-Conti Burgundy, a wine which has one of the highest release prices in the world and can only be obtained by the individual bottle each year by even the world’s most established restaurants and retailers. This, of course, begs the question that is not asked enough: where is this wine coming from? Laurent Ponsot of the aforementioned Domaine Ponsot was quoted in Decanter as saying he believes that 80% of pre-1980 Burgundy put up for auction is counterfeit.
It’s very very easy to counterfeit wine. Unlike art or money, which require a great deal of artistic skill to fake believably, all that is needed to counterfeit a classic wine is an empty wine bottle (empty premium wine bottles with label can fetch $50+ on the black market), a bottle of off-vintage older wine, and a cork and capsule. With a little elbow grease and attention to detail, one can quickly turn a $70 investment into a bottle of wine that might sell for $1000 or more at auction. (The Wine Diarist has photos of Kurniawan’s home counterfeiting operation.) It is so laughably easy and there is so little interest in oversight that Kurniawan probably never would have been caught if he hadn’t been so sloppy as to counterfeit wine that never existed and so unlucky as to do so with a product from a vineyard whose owner would be so passionate about pursuing the case to the end.
Ultimately, these collectors were simply very foolish. Foolish to trust thousands of dollars of investment in products of unknown provenance. Foolish to keep trusting a man who began exhibiting the habits of a counterfeiter (including asking for empty bottles of big-ticket wines to be mailed to his home, ostensibly to have a “shrine” built) long before his arrest. And foolish for being so invested in a world that is literally built on lies, winks, and nods.
The simple fact known to me and countless others is that many of the world’s most transcendent wines can be had for prices that barely crack three figures, if at all. If the objective of the wine enthusiast is to consume wine and not dollars, then the speculative wine market should never exist. A transitive property might suggest then that those who participate in the speculative wine collecting market are therefore not, in fact, wine enthusiasts, but I’ll leave that for a more experienced logician to decipher.
I know that taking pleasure at the misfortune of others is not a particularly nice thing to do, but when those others are some of the wine powers that be who routinely look down their noses at those of us who advocate for the unheralded, underrepresented, and under-appreciated jewels of the wine world; those whose wine purview stretches all the way from Bordeaux to Burgundy with a Napa Valley exclave, it does make the schadenfreude easier to accept.
(Note: I removed the reference to William Koch being one of Rudy Kurniawan’s victims, not because he wasn’t–he was–but because he is not one of the two Conservative activist Koch Brothers I was thinking of. He merely falls into the broader category of Rich White Men Duped by Kurniawan, and thus no longer worth singling out as providing particular satisfaction.)