Counterfeit Wine


Hear me out....

Wine, but make it counterfeit.

The first thing I stumbled across on this, that got my interest, was the story of Rudy Kurniawan. I watched the 2016 documentary, "Sour Grapes" on Netflix and it focused on Kurniawan's story.

Like all good con men, Kurniawan was charismatic, brilliant, and had a natural knack for lying. Makes sense, right? But instead of forging paintings or bilking millionaires out of money with a Ponzi scheme, Kurniawan forged wine.

Why wine? I mean, the stuff I drink isn't worth forging. And I think that's the case for most of us who enjoy wine but don't have the money to spend hundreds or thousands of dollars on a single bottle. And are you supposed to drink wine that's so expensive?

Episode: File 0022: Be Our Guest (live)

Release Date: April 2 2021

Researched and presented by Halli

For Kurniawan's customers, they had that money and yes, you are supposed to drink it up to a certain point. Then, like all unexplainably pricey things, it's about owning them and the cred that comes with such wealth and status. It's insane. 

But so is Kurniawan's story.

He supposedly came from money - that's what most people knew about him right away. From his swept back hair and fancy suits to the incredibly pricey bottles of wine he shared with friends and strangers alike, Rudy seemed to have no limits - for wine, for conversation, or with his money. The story he told was that he was from a wealthy Sino-Indonesian family who had ties to the wine industry and soon he was making a splash on the wine scene in L.A., courting directors and producers and lovers of rare wines. He was instantly sharing really pricey bottles at lavish dinners he held, and was more than happy to show off his refined palate.

So here's something really interesting about Kurniawan - he actually had the kind of palate for wine some people would kill for. He could accurately tell you where the grapes were grown, identify certain vintages, and as his palate and taste for wine outside California grew, so did his renown.

Soon he was obsessed with Burgundies, most of which are made from the same grapes as pinot noir but it's a far more expensive wine, and more famous. And then he was suddenly at all the big auctions, both buying and selling some of the 20th century's greatest wines.

He bought so much Domaine de la Romanée-Conti he became known as "Dr Conti", which presumably later amused some of those he defrauded.

At one auction in 2006, Kurniawan sold $24.7 million - yeah million - dollars worth of wine, beating the previous record by a staggering 10 million dollars. As an article in the Guardian notes:

"These were the days of the first dotcom boom, when Silicon Valley had more money than sense, a combination which has always been drawn to fine wines."

And it may have taken a while, but eventually some strange things began to show up in the market. Bottles of a particular vintage - 1945 to 1971 - started to turn up. But the head of the house that makes that wine stated they hadn't started production until 1982.

As I always say, if you're going to lie, do it right. And Kurniawan was starting to fray at the edges, getting caught in his own web of lies and deceit.

Kurniawan also sold fake wine to - get this - Bill Koch. Yeah, one of the Koch brothers. First of all, hahahahaha. Secondly, I'm recalling that line about too much money and not enough common sense....

But it's actually because Kurniawan sold the fake wine to Koch that he was caught. Koch hired private detectives who turned over information to the FBI. Kurniawan's Acadia, California home was raided in 2012 and that's where they hit the jackpot. His entire home was a counterfeiting operation, from corking tools and empty bottles to extensive tasting notes. Not surprisingly, Kurniawan was taking cheap wine, putting it in a new bottle with a new label of an expensive brand or house, and then making bank.

In 2014 he was sentenced to 10 years in prison in California, making him the first person to ever be convicted of wine fraud. He was also found guilty of mail fraud and wire fraud and is believed to have sold upwards as 12,000 bottles of fake wine at auction in just one year, 2006.

In November 2020, Kurniawan was scheduled to be released from prison and deported from the United States.

So while Kurniawan's story might be the most well known, fake vintage/fine wine isn't uncommon. One, it's highly suspected he didn't work alone, and because the FBI never traced the fraud back to Indonesia, part of Kurniawan's circle is probably still out there. And Rudy's not the only wine faker - it's estimated that up to 80% of the Burgundy from before 1980 is counterfeit.

Let's look at something a little more recent:

  • March 22, 2021. Customs officials in Ireland confiscated the equivalent of 33,000 bottles (almost 3 times the amount Kurniawan faked) of counterfeit wine at the Tivoli Container Terminal. Which is in the Irish city of Cork. Strangely enough. The fake wine was valued at $360,000 and they believe it to have originated in the Netherlands.

  • In February 2021, shoppers in England were told to be on the lookout for fake bottles of, all things, Yellow Tail wine. You know, that bottle you buy for like $9 at the supermarket. A supermarket in Birmingham, England, faced government action after being busted with 41 bottles of the fake stuff. A customer reported it, voicing concern when they bought six bottles in November and discovered 3 of them had oddly coloured liquid inside and didn't taste the same. The bottles have been tracked back to a large scale operation, likely from abroad, but as an article in Food & Wine .com points out, it also shows that you can't trust your local grocer. A legit buyer for a supermarket wouldn't have bought wine that could have only come off the back of a truck.

And these are just a couple of examples! There are tons of articles online about fake wine and fake wine schemes. Like all things that attract the wealthy, there's always someone else willing to take their money and run.

A quote from that Guardian article:

Wine is meant to bring people together, in warmth, conversation and laughter. Beyond this we add history, mystique and science, mainly because they are fun. The spirit of wine frolics around naked; it is not a suited accountant. Few drinkers, as they uncork an £8 bottle from Tesco, think in terms of investment, or the authenticity of the bottle. Rudy Kurniawan broke the law, but Dionysus would surely have chuckled.