The wine snob who ripped off other wine snobs

The wine snob who ripped off other wine snobs
Rudy Kurniawan loved 
wine, both real and fake.

Rudy Kurniawan was a hip guy who was very rich and very knowledgeable about all things wine. He bought and sold millions of dollars of high end wine (over $35 million alone in 2006), but for years there were stories that some of the wines associated with him were not quite… real.

When the FBI raided his home, they discovered thousands of wine labels, hundreds of corks with a device to insert them into bottles, materials for sealing the corks, and art supplies useful for counterfeiting wine labels. They found bottles of cheap wine labeled with the names of the more expensive wines they were meant to replace.

Mr. Kurniawan was arrested and charged with fraud, and many of his supporters, including those who tasted his wines and a shop that auctioned it, are looking like idiots.

How easy is to to make counterfeit wine?

…You could blend two vintages, say a bottle of ’81 Petrus (average auction price: $1,194) and a bottle of ’83 Petrus ($1,288), to make two bottles of ’82 Petrus ($4,763 each). It would be the right wine and taste the right age; even if it didn’t taste exactly like ’82, it wouldn’t taste exactly like ’81 or ’83 either. Close enough. With lesser wines that didn’t historically brand their corks with the winemaker or vintage, you could simply relabel the bottle as something much more expensive, by laser-printing a new label or soaking an authentic old one off an empty bottle. More riskily, you could tamper with a blank cork, inking it with the winemaker or vintage of your choice.

The nifty thing about old-wine cons is it is almost impossible to prove anything. Go back a few decades, especially before World War II, and no one really knows exactly what was done: How many bottles of a particular wine were produced, in what formats, in what packaging. The older and rarer the wine, the fewer people who’ve tasted it. Natural bottle variation is common. Skilled tasters can disagree about flavor, and even if a wine tastes odd, diagnostics are a minefield. Even high-tech radioisotope dating has uselessly huge margins of error for bottles that predate the nuclear age. Given this epistemic swamp, winemakers rarely step up and declare a bottle fake. It’s acceptable for an auction house to be reticent about a bottle’s origins, and when the trade speaks at all, it’s in euphemism: A bottle’s "inconsistent."

– The long version of the story: Chateau Sucker. Rare-wine collectors are savvy, competitive guys with a taste for impossible finds. The biggest hoax in history took place right under their noses. New York Magazine>>
– The short version of the story: The $1.3m wine hoax: How one man sold cheap Napa plonk as the world’s finest vintage… and fooled the industry elite. Mail Online>>

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