The Truth About Old Wines

Why absolutely nobody is an expert when tasting old wines
Jan 7, 2014

Last month a federal jury found 37-year-old Rudy Kurniawan guilty of fraud for selling counterfeit wines and defrauding a finance company. It was such an open-and-shut case that the jury deliberated for a mere hour and 45 minutes before returning with a guilty verdict. The Feds literally had the goods on Kurniawan, having seized in a raid on his home all sorts of paraphernalia (old bottles, labels, corks, stamps, capsules) used to create counterfeit bottles.

The average person reading about the Kurniawan case can be forgiven for asking the obvious question: What about the wine in the bottle? Surely so-called wine experts can tell the difference between the real thing and the phony?

Well, obviously they can’t. For reasons I’ll get to in a moment, it’s nowhere near as easy or simple to confirm the authenticity of an old wine as it is the authenticity of its packaging, as was amply demonstrated in the Kurniawan trial.

The anticipatory excitement of tasting old wines, like the prospect of sex, seems to cloud people’s minds. They look past, or forgive, all sorts of sins or deficiencies. Folks become remarkably accommodating. I’ve witnessed this repeatedly over the years when tasting old wines with fellow wine lovers. So smitten are they by the historicity and venerability of the wine in front of them that they seem to lose all powers of discrimination.

For those in the wine business—especially among auction houses, where such wines mean millions of dollars of business—another kind of generosity comes into play. The auction houses constantly proclaim their vigilance in identifying fakery and substandard bottles, but the Kurniawan case rather dramatically gives the lie to that.

Worth noting is that even when the old wines being auctioned are authentic, it doesn’t necessarily mean that what you’re buying is sure to deliver an “authentic” experience. Many of the old wines I’ve tasted in people’s homes—often purchased at auction—were tired, sighing their last gasps of fruit and flavor. Simply put, they had not been well-stored. When you think about it, pristine storage is no mean feat for a wine with 50 or 80 years of age on it. That would mean it was consistently in an environment of 52° F to 55° F, year-round. What are the odds of that over a half-century or more?

“Well-stored” is a generous notion in the auction trade. I have a friend who, when he was living in Florida, sold a large batch of California trophy wines to a prominent auction house.

“Did they inspect your cellar or ask for sample wines?” I asked.

“Not at all,” he replied. “I told them they were stored in a temperature-controlled space. But they never actually saw it or even asked for a photo. They just asked for a list of the wines. When they saw what I had, they said, ‘Ship ’em on up.’”

I myself was on the receiving end of just such easygoingness. A well-known auction house was listing a case of 1990 Stony Hill Chardonnay. Having recently tasted that same wine at the winery, I knew it to be stunningly good, still vibrant and fresh-tasting.

Because I knew the auctioneer, I called him to confirm the provenance of the wine. Was it well-cellared? “Perfectly cellared,” he replied confidently. So I bid on that case and bought it. The wines arrived. The bottles looked impeccable, with immaculate labels and high fills. Yet the wine in every bottle was oxidized and undrinkable.

All of which brings me back to why absolutely nobody is an expert when tasting old wines. The truth of old wines is that they usually are “blurry” experiences.

I’ll never forget tasting—for the first and only time in my life—a 1945 Romanée-Conti, of which only 600 bottles were produced. The host insisted it was the real thing and he’s a pro at this old-wine game, possessing a fabulous cellar chockablock with wines going back to the early 1800s.

Was that '45 Romanée-Conti thrilling? Sorry to say, it wasn’t. It was an old wine and much of its life force was already spent. Maybe a different bottle would have been more vibrant.

Even someone who has tasted a dozen different bottles of the same 50-year-old wine has really never had the same wine twice. The odds of tasting a dozen examples of the same 50-year-old wine that are in equally pristine condition is so slim as to verge on the impossible. Add to that the very real vagaries of uneven cork quality and you can easily see why no two old wines are alike.

I’ll give you an example. Not long ago, a wealthy wine-loving friend served at a dinner he hosted a 1961 Château Léoville Las Cases. Now, I’m no Bordeaux guy, although over the years I’ve had my unfair share of big Bordeaux names, including several from the fabled 1961 vintage.

But when I tasted this '61 Léoville Las Cases I was bowled over. I was hard-pressed to recall ever tasting a classed-growth at the half-century mark that was this fresh, this precise-tasting, this vibrant. It was so fresh-tasting, in fact, that it made me suspicious.

I gingerly raised this astonishment as diplomatically as I could with the host, who is a guy who well knows the wiggles of the wine world. He laughed and said that he agreed. But he knew that it was indeed the real thing. Or at least, he said, as likely to be the real thing as one could hope to get.

“How’s that?” I asked.

“Because I bought the wine directly from Château Léoville Las Cases and had it air-freighted over,” he replied.

Now you know why there are no experts when it comes to old wines, never mind whether they are genuine or counterfeit. There’s simply too little consistency from one old bottle to the next to ensure the kind of certainty that is so (wrongly) expected of “experts.”

If that unbelievably fresh '61 Léoville Las Cases was the real thing, is anything less vibrant and vital therefore a fraud? Of course not.

Confirming the authenticity of an old wine is far from a sure thing, no matter how many times you’ve tasted the vintage. At best, it’s a good, educated guess. At worst, you’re simply too awed by the label, its rarity, its age or its astronomical cost. (In 2011, a bottle of 1945 Romanée-Conti sold at auction for $123,889.)

This is why, no matter how experienced you may be, buying and drinking old wine is a lot like falling in love: You hope it’s the real thing and you pray you’re not a fool.

Crime Fraud Opinion

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