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Rudy Kurniawan Could Be the Tip of a Fake Wine Crisis

Are counterfeits a victimless crime? Not when they rob us of the pleasure wine can deliver
Photo by: David Yellen

Posted: Dec 18, 2013 12:30pm ET

By Mitch Frank

I love hearing people's "aha!" moments with wine—that instant when they realized that wine is more than just a beverage, that great wine has personality.

Here's a good one: A young man takes his visiting father out for dinner to celebrate dad's birthday. Neither knows much about wine, but the son decides this is a special occasion so he orders the most expensive bottle on the list. The wine—a 1996 Opus One—opens the young man's eyes. Within a few months, he's buying several bottles of Opus One, then other top wines. (Luckily, he has a decent amount of money.) Soon, he's hooked. Wine becomes his passion, and he's attending tastings and collecting rare bottles. Burgundy in particular beguiles him. 

Like much of what we know about Rudy Kurniawan, it's hard to tell how much of this story is true and how much he concocted. Kurniawan told this tale to a journalist in 2006, just after an auction of his wines raised $24.7 million, a record for a single-consignor auction. Since he began attending auctions and tastings a decade ago, Kurniawan had always been vague about his origins and his seemingly deep pockets.

Even now, after a federal jury convicted Kurniawan on charges of fraud for making counterfeit wines in his Los Angeles home and selling them to collectors, he remains a vague outline of a man, despite the valiant efforts of my colleague Peter Hellman, who camped out at the courthouse. Where did Rudy come from? How much wine did he sell? And did he have help? Is he one man, concocting fake Domaine de la Romanée-Conti in his kitchen? Or is he just the frontman for a network of people, most of them overseas, who are poisoning the rare-wine market?

One online column last week suggested that Kurniawan is actually a class-warfare hero. After all, the author argued, all he did was dupe a bunch of rich guys paying too much for wine—and the fact they were fooled shows they deserved to be fooled.

Try telling that to Romanée-Conti's Aubert de Villaine, who testified this past week that wines Kurniawan consigned bearing his winery's name were fakes; some of those bottles had his signature on the label. Or tell it to Laurent Ponsot, who discovered in 2008 that Kurniawan had consigned wines his grandfather had supposedly made from land that he never farmed but that Ponsot works with today.

"Someone will open these bottles, and they will be disappointed," Ponsot testified, explaining why this case matters to him. "But more than that, it will dirty the reputation of our wines. You don't have a word in English for terroir. But it's what gives this spirit, this unique thing that we have."

What's more, fake collectible wines are just the visible part of an iceberg of counterfeit wines. A fake Burgundy that sold for tens of thousands of dollars grabs our attention, but a growing amount of everyday wine is being counterfeited. As wine continues to find new markets, the danger of fakes will only grow. As my colleague Robert Taylor noted, a French newspaper recently estimated that 20 percent of the wines on the global market are fake. While the expert he spoke to doubts it's quite that high, the truth is that no one knows.

Even as wineries become more savvy about protecting their brands, counterfeiters continue to grow smarter too. Just three years ago, many Chinese wine stores were littered with ridiculous fakes—wines claiming to be first-growth Bordeaux from Alsace, wines like Benfolds Grange. Today those stores sell wines that look identical to fine French wines but are filled with Chinese wine—or worse. There have been cases of fakes filled with grain alcohol and food coloring or even dangerous chemicals.

Anyone who thinks Kurniawan pulled a harmless prank on rich people is effectively saying wine is no different from grape juice. What does it matter if the stuff in the bottle didn't actually come from the vineyard on the label?

But I have never met someone who had an "aha!" moment over a glass of Welch's. Wine grabs hold of not just our palates, but our brains. You could spend your life trying to figure out the nuances of wines from different soils—the differences between Pinot Noir from Ponsot's terroir on the Côte d'Or and a vineyard in Central Otago, New Zealand. And you don't need to spend tens of thousands of dollars to find wine with personality.

The counterfeiters destroy that possibility. When you don't know what's in the bottle, how can you trust what you taste? How can you truly say, "Aha!"?

Peter Hellman
New York, NY, USA —  December 18, 2013 10:06pm ET
With the potential for the "Aha" moment stolen from you by counterfeiters, it's like fishing in a pond where there is no potential to catch fish. Bummer in the extreme!
Troy Peterson
Burbank, CA —  December 19, 2013 4:48pm ET
I doubt that any other artist (film, music, paint) would look lightly upon someone reconstituting their work and passing it off as the original. Counterfeiting is counterfeiting, whether it's one $100 bill at a time or one $10,000 bottle at a time. It has to be stopped or all sense of value will be lost.
Matthew Hayes
France —  December 21, 2013 11:36am ET
I think few people regard Kurniawan's actions as harmless; however, there is deep irony in duping so many "experts". He is however a crook, and deserves to go down.
As a wine broker in Burgundy I questioned the sudden arrival of huge quantities of old Burgundies particularly bteween 2005-2007. These wines were simply unavailable ten years ago.
It is reasonable to be sympathetic to Ponsot's fear of his wines being misrepresented, but honestly, if you buy your wine from a traditional, reliable source thre should be no problem.
But with regard to the tip of an iceberg it is auctions of which you should be wary. And with particular regard to the Kurniawan case one particular auction house and one particular director (I wouldn't want to name them!) should be very nervous. Lest it be forgotten, in that one, first record breaking auction, the auction house took 20% commission from buyer and seller alike...that's quite a few million. Auctioneers, if they are worthy of that name have a duty to pay due diligence to provenance and veracity of product. In these particular sales, I fear that was very much not the case.
John Eagan
Beverly Hills  —  December 22, 2013 11:22am ET
My experience with very expensive older wine (1971 Petrus) is tainted - even the suspicion that the wine is counterfeit changes the experience. You question everything : the label is too perfect for a 40 year old wine; the cork isn't real; is the wine even a Bordeaux? My pal had generously bought the wine to share with someone born in 1971 and spent $1,000's for the bottle that didn't "feel" real.

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