The Discerning Lush : Wine World- A look back at 2013’s main event
The end of a year and start of a new one is when I get a little sentimental. I pull out my iphone and look at my snapshots of the year gone by, including any particularly nice bottles I’ve drunk. To help me remember, I once bought a pack of those wine saver stickers, which deftly applied allows you to remove a wine label and place it into your for-posterity scrapbook of top slurps. Laziness however prevented me from achieving this particular scrap book goal, and lack of ingenuity from realizing the many uses that wine labels can be put to. On the other hand, clever wine aficionados, such as Mr. Rudy Kurniawan, are industrious enough to collect wine labels and think of really clever ways to use them, like (allegedly) paste them on other bottles, or as Mr. Kurniawan’ s defence counsel vigorously argued, decorating his home walls with DRC wine labels and corks. Seems that latter argument didn’t really buy the hearts and minds of the jury…. Kurniawan was found guilty on 13 December 2013 of what might be one of the biggest wine frauds ever.
To me, the trial of Rudy Kurniawan is without doubt THE biggest event in wine world 2013, not the collective moaning about Europe’s disastrous 2012 harvest nor Morgan Stanley’s scaremongering about a world shortage of wine. Kurniawan was one of the most well-known wine aficionados in the US, a trove of knowledge on rare wine, possessed of a gifted palate and described by prominent Burgundy broker Paul Wasserman as having “a photographic aromatic memory”. Kurniawan, self-declared scion of a wealthy Indonesian Chinese family, had a love of legendary wines and was erstwhile one of the largest collectors as well as consigners of fine wine in the US, if not the world. In March 2012, the FBI raided his Aracadia, California home to reveal a sophisticated home bottling operation- fine wine labels and corks from acclaimed vintages ready to be used on bottles, empty bottles from famous producers, bottles of old but cheap wine and unremarkable Napa ready to be blended and bottled, to be passed off as the most expensive and rare Burgundies and sold as auction trophies. The truth that faced the wine world was very ugly- Kurniawan was a fraud, a maker of fake wine who sold millions of dollars of “fine and rare” wine blended in his kitchen, an illegal overstayer in the US whose real name was probably Zhen Wang Huang, and he was heavily in debt from the luxurious lifestyle he aspired to live.
Few doubt that Kurniawan was a true wine aficionado. His passion for wine, he claims, started after his first taste of a 1995 Opus One in 2000. From then on, he thirst for knowledge of fine wine was voracious, quickly graduating to the pinnacle- rare Burgundy. Kurniawan was no fraud in that respect, he was nick-named “Dr. Conti” for his zeal for Romanee-Conti, earning compliments from Alan Meadows, aka Burghound one of the most respected Burgundy tasters, on his knowledge of Burgundy. His generosity was enormous (according to Michael Steinberger in Vanity Fair, over a 4-day binge at Cru in Greenwich Village, Kurniawan allegedly bankrolled the consumption of a 1945 Mouton Rothschild, 1961 Jaboulet Hermitage La Chappelle, 1971 La Tache, 1964 Romanee-Conti and more, an event which cost US$250,000), and it served to grease his meteoric rise into the uber exclusive tasting circles of California and New York. He was a trusted inner circle member, rubbing shoulders with wealthy wine collectors and famous critics, and buddies with John Kapon, president of auction house Acker Merrall & Condit. From 2002 onwards, Kurniawan was a major acquirer in fine wine auction markets. Kapon said, “he cornered much of the megamarket”. It’s not really clear when this respected wine buff crossed to the dark side and began to create his own “rare” wines. Records show that he asked for Cru to send him the empty bottles of fine wine, he ordered label removal and cork extraction kits- it seems his audacious experiment had been in the planning for a while. From 2006, when prices of fine wine were rising astronomically- in part due no doubt to Kurniawan’s purchasing activities, Kurniawan began disposing of large quantities of astonishingly rare wine. He consigned enormous lots to Kapon and Acker to sell in two auctions in 2006 titled “THE Cellar” and “the Cellar II”, raking in more than US$35m. Acker shot to the top of the wine auction league and Kapon enthused over Kurniawan, as “one of the most knowledgeable collectors” having “one of the greatest cellars in America”. With his windfall, Kurniawan started acquiring art, Ferraris, Bentleys and a Bel Air house. As doubts on the provenance of Kurniawan’s wines arose, so they were dismissed- he always had an excuse- he bought the bottles from a private Asian collection through family contacts, he bought so much he couldn’t remember who and where he bought from, he discussed fakes as a risk of wine collecting, he was duped, Alan Meadows was duped etc. etc. Kurniawan’s reputation kept him largely beyond suspicion, for the time. In 2008, Kurniawan made a mistake that would lead to his unravelling- he consigned bottles of Domaine Ponsot to Acker for auction- unfortunately these were all from vintages which did not exist. It was the proprietor of Domaine Ponsot, Laurent Ponsot himself, who took note- Domaine Ponsot did not produce Clos St. Denis in the 40s and 50- only from the 80s. Ponsot flew in to attend the Acker auction to prevent the sale of the fakes, and the bottles were dramatically pulled at the last minute. Kurniawan said convincingly that he was duped, and it would take another 4 years before the trail led back to Kurniawan’s kitchen.
Kurniawan will be sentenced later this year, and as the dust is settling, the Discerning Lush is deeply puzzled. How could the collective wisdom of top wine critics and sophisticated collectors not notice, or not want to take notice, of an audacious fraud in their midst ? How many bottles originating from Kurniawan did Burghound base his reviews on ? Do fine wine auction houses do any basic due diligence at all on the provenance of their wines ? I mean, selling wines purporting to be from certain vintages where those wines were never made seems like a pretty basic checking exercise that was never done. Where in the world is Kurniwan’s wine ? In the cellars of wealthy collectors no doubt, some in fine wine stores, top restaurants…..how many will own up to having been duped ? Many of these bottles will surely end up being dumped in Asia which already has its own fake wine problems. These bottles could make their way (and may already have done so) through the frothy Hong Kong wine auction market, which has been the world’s largest for 3 consecutive years since 2010. With wine retailers in Hong Kong and Singapore bringing in rare and expensive wines to cater to rising demand, and plenty of newly minted billionaires, millionaires and wealthy middle classes in Asia keen to discover an exotic historically Western indulgence and wanting to make trophy acquisitions at any cost, coupled with a lower level of wine knowledge overall, Asia is ripe for Kurniawan’s cuvee.
Discerning Lush is less concerned personally as Discerning Lush will never be able to afford any legendary wine. Discerning Lush also has a secure supply of Fat Bird from a trusted supplier who is Smart with Money. However, for oenophile hedge fund types, lawyers, flash bankers, traders, entrepreneurs out there- tread with care. I know you have your secret sources, yup that friend of a mate of a buddy, who will contact you and offer you a few bottles of a really special wine from a special year, only less than 50 bottles brought into the country direct from super reliable merchant vouched for under pain of death etc. etc. Before you buy it, you might want to flip the bottle over, and if you see a little sticker with the “RK” initials, I would suggest you avoid.