At the end of the month, a federal judge will decide how serious the crime of wine counterfeiting is. Rudy Kurniawan, convicted of selling an estimated $2 million to $7 million worth of fakes (no one is quite sure how many prized bottles he counterfeited), will be sentenced. He faces up to 40 years in prison.
His lawyers have made their plea for leniency, asking the judge to sentence Kurniawan to time served since his arrest—roughly 27 months. Like any good legal team, they have thrown every halfway credible argument they can devise at the judge: Why should Kurniawan serve a long jail term when the bankers who helped trigger the global financial crisis weren't prosecuted? Since most of Kurniawan's victims were wealthy, isn't the impact of his crime minimal?
That argument ignores Kurniawan's other victims—the winegrowers whose credibility was tarnished when people tasted wines that were supposed to be from their vines.
But another suggestion caught my eye. Describing how Kurniawan became part of wine-collector circles, Jerome Mooney and Vincent Verdiramo argued that counterfeit wine is just a game:
"Rudy learned that everybody expected there to be counterfeits. In fact, part of the contest was to see who could figure out what was real and what was fraudulent. The remedies if you got a bad bottle were to drink it, and point out how it was wrong, or just put it up for auction so that it would pass to the next guy down the line. Every auction contained such bottles, and the identification—or speculation—as to the authenticity of wines became the newest parlor game."
Everyone who knows collectible wine knows there are fakes—especially since the market for rare wines went big and went global a decade ago. Some auction house staff downplay the risk: Fakes are rare and easy for experts to spot. Others are grim: Fakes are rampant and increasingly well-crafted.
But none of them call counterfeits a game.
I have a good friend who just doesn't care that much for fine wine. He's got a great palate—he brews his own beer and participates in cooking competitions. But he doesn't see why any bottle of wine should cost more than $30. Above that price, he doesn't taste a difference.
Plenty of people like my friend see fine wine as a game. C'mon, it's just fermented grape juice. Why the thoughtful sipping? Get over your pompous selves.
Most of you love wine, however, because once upon a time you lifted a glass to your lips and a light bulb went on. You tasted the stars, much the way Dom Pérignon never actually did. If you visited a quality winery and walked through a great vineyard, you were undoubtedly hooked for life.
It's easy to dismiss wine collecting as a rich man's parlor game. For some collectors, it is. And they share some of the blame because when they have discovered a fake in their cellars, they have "put it up for auction so that it would pass to the next guy down the line."
The time has come for collectors to admit they got duped. Auction houses and wineries need to call out fakes, even when it means angry customers. The only way to save rare wine's reputation is to root out the bad bottles. Too many of Kurniawan's bottles are still lying in cellars while he lies in jail.
When people who haven't been lucky enough yet to fall in love with wine hear stories like Kurniawan's, they conclude that wine itself is just a game. That it's just fermented grape juice. And that's the real pity. Everyone should get to taste the stars.