The $1.3m wine hoax: How one man sold cheap Napa plonk as the world's finest vintage… and fooled the industry elite
Rudy Kurniawan was indicted in New York last weekHe faces four counts of mail and wire fraud, and jail time of up to 100 years
22:50 GMT, 15 May 2012
As a fraudster is indicted for a $1.3million hoax counterfeiting rare wines and selling the bottles, attention has fallen to the consumer-trusted wine experts who were so easily fooled.
The world's most respected taste buds bought, sold and wrote about Rudy Kurniawan's wine collection, many of which turned out to be re-marked fakes from Napa Valley.
Now, as the 35-year-old faces jail time of up to 100 years, many are speculating as to how he managed to get away with it.
Mr believable: Rudy Kurniawan conned savvy, competitive rare-wine collectors, with the biggest hoax in history taking place right under their noses
An article in the latest New York magazine points out how many of Mr Kurniawan's apparently sought-after wines, of which he sold more than $35 million worth in 2006 alone, are alleged to be counterfeits – potentially damaging the prestigious world of wine experts and their often snobby credibility.
When the FBI arrested Mr Kurniawan on March 8, his Californian home contained explicit evidence of the scam, which alluded the circle of wine experts and enthusiasts who were his trusted confidants.
Thousands of photocopied wine labels for top vintages, including 1950 Ptrus and 1947 Lafleur, Lafite, and Romane-Conti were found next to hundreds of old and new corks, and an automatic device for inserting them.
Most notably, there were bottles of cheap Napa Valley wine labelled with names of the vintage Bordeaux wines they allegedly intended to impersonate, and there were other bottles soaking in the kitchen sink, their labels about to be removed.
Detailed instructions for fabricating labels for 1962 Domaine Ponsot Clos de la Roche were found as well as sealing wax and rubber stamps with vintages and chateaux names, such as 1899 and 1900 Latour.
Fake labels: When the FBI arrested Mr Kurniawan, his Californian home contained explicit evidence of the scam, including thousands of photocopied wine labels
International wine auctioneers, such as John Kapon, expert Burgundy critics, like Allen Meadows, wine shop owner Paul Wasserman, as well as the wider wine industry, were all left to question how solid their old-wine knowledge really is.
Along with Mr Wasserman, Mr Kapon had also published countless tasting notes based on Mr Kurniawan's wines, and Mr Meadows, too, had written notes for some of the rarest wines from Mr Kurniawan's apparent fake bottles.
The inability to prove hard facts within the rare wine industry helped Mr Kurniawan carry out the biggest hoax in history right under their noses.
Before World War II, there are few records showing how many bottles of a particular wine were produced, in what formats, and in what packaging, with variation in bottles being common.
Also, the older and rarer the wine, the fewer people who have actually tasted it – and even skilled tasters can disagree about flavor.
Explicit evidence: Bottles of cheap Napa Valley wine were found labelled with names of the vintage Bordeaux wines, along with their corks
Even if a wine tastes odd, it is usually cited as being 'inconsistent,' rather than declared a fake by auctioneers who do not want to risk losing consignments by investigating obscure bottles, or by winemakers who are uneasy about discussing counterfeiting, for fear of tainting their vineyard.
In the rare-wine world, murkiness has the ability to turn doubt into mystique and many wealthy collectors only want to drink famous, expensive labels – not necessarily ask questions.
It wasn't until Laurent Ponsot, the maker of a renowned collectible Burgundy, launched his own investigation after Mr Kurniwan tried selling fake versions of his wine, that the hoax started to unravel.
Domaine Ponsot wines only started making its Clos St Denis in the Eighties,and it was an auction of Kurniawan-consigned vintages from 1959 and 1945 that alerted Mr Ponsot to the irrefutable fakes.
The rare wine collecting industry is built upon scarcity, and the credibility and expertise of preeminent critics.
Fraud: Detailed instructions for fabricating labels were found as well as sealing wax and rubber stamps with vintages and chateaux names
In reality, Mr Kurniawan's case may have proven the murky world of prestigious and rare wines is instead built on illusions, snobbery and ego.
With so many experts duped, one could argue that expensive, vintage bottles may have a taste nearer to that of cheaper wines than the world has long lead to be believed.
Mr Wasserman told the New York Times: 'It’s so damaging to the magic of wine.'