There are wine names that all of us winos etch into our memories: individuals such as Dom Perignon, Robert Mondavi, Robert Parker; estates or prestigious wines: Margaux, Lafite, Screaming Eagle, etc. But there’s another name in the wine news these days, and it’s a name that cautions us about how wine has become a supremely profitable commodity for slippery characters or reassures us that wine has become a significant part of the global market and is thus assured a solid economic future.
The name in today’s wine news — including the December issue of DECANTER — is Rudy Kurniawan who now faces decades in jail for wheeling and dealing in fraudulent wines and wine deals. Millions of dollars. Millions. Fake wine or fraudulently represented wine has become big business. Both Scotland Yard and the FBI have dedicated staff to tracking down and identifying wines that are not what they are purported to be. One of my favorite sources of information about the excessive costs involved in trading, selling, and stealing prestigious wines is Peter Mayle’s novel, “The Vintage Caper.”
Kuriawan’s caper, however, has not caused me to suspect the contents of my bottles of Georges Duboeuf’s Beaujolais or Bogle’s Cabernet Sauvignon. In fact, experts say that wines priced at under $50 are never of interest to those who would falsify their credentials. The dealers in Kurniawan’s class go for top flight Burgundy, Bordeaux, Piedmont, Napa, or bottles with a specific history of ownership by noted personalities. In general, the wines available from reliable retailers are not suspect.
Most fraud has been perpetrated through auctions where cases are sold without ever being opened, shipped off to a warehouse to await resale or maturation, often years before being opened and examined and/or tasted. Most typically, the grand wine has been removed and replaced with a lesser wine. Or a fine wine label replaces the label on a not-so-fine wine. Difficult? Yes, of course. But doable, especially when thousands and thousands of dollars are in the offing. Fortunately, auction companies are now beginning to challenge the authenticity of their bottles to be sure they are selling what they say they are.
The uncovering of Rudy Kurniawan is an interesting story in itself. The hero is one of Burgundy’s eminent producesr, Laurent Ponsot, who in 2008 learned that 97 bottles of his wine, estimated value over a million dollars, were to be auctioned in New York. He was surprised to learn that one of them was a 1929 Clos de la Roche , a wine his estate did not produce until 1934. Another 38 bottles of 1945 Clos St-Denis got his attention because his estate did not produce those wines until the 1980s. Ponsot made a sudden trip to New York just in time to nullify the sale and to launch an investigation. It was Ponsot, in fact, who put the FBI on the trail, and in March of this year, they nailed Kurniawan.
This story is readily available in the wine press and makes for interesting reading. I point it out only to illustrate that wine is indeed valuable enough to be the subject of high-level crime. When we imbibe our favorite beverage, we are partaking of great value.
In spite of my point above, I now look at the labels of my $15 to $20 bottles to see if they match the general character of that estate’s past labels, to make sure the cork is properly stamped, and the appearance of the wine in the glass resembles what the vintage date suggests it should. No, I don’t have equipment to perfom chromotography to measure the ratio of stable isotopes to hydrogen in alcohol or to verify the wine’s DNA, but I’m pleased that our law enforcement agencies are able to do so. When it’s time for me to buy a $2,000 bottle of Petrus, I want to be sure it’s the real thing.