To fool a wine connoisseur with a fraudulent bottle, a forger would need to know, in equal measures, wines that were real and fake. Rudy Kurniawan, a 20-something Indonesian immigrant living in Los Angeles, had the wicked combination of a discerning palate for the authentic stuff, and a criminal mind capable of passing off the fake. Like a musician with perfect pitch, he was described as having “virtuoso nostrils” and had a taste for wine that could match few others. His tastes were so good they eventually seemed too good to be true. With an author’s luck, Peter Hellman happened to be at a wine auction which led him down a journalistic path into the world of counterfeit wine. Hellman’s In Vino Duplicitas: The Rise and Fall of a Wine Forger Extraordinaire (The Experiment, 2017) profiles this infamous wine forger, the victims he duped along the way, and the scar he swathed across the wine industry.
After bursting onto the scene of wine auctions in 2002, Kurniawan convinced everyone he was a top-notch aficionado. He brought the world’s best wines to dinner parties and wine tastings. He charmingly endeared himself to the most influential characters at wine auctions, high-end restaurants, and vineyards. Not only was he an expert taster, but also a shopaholic, spending millions of dollars on cases of wine, owning several thousands of bottles at any one time in his revolving inventory of real and forged wines. He did all of this with the skill of an extraordinary con man. But when one vintner came face-to-face with an obvious fake from his own winery, Kurniawan’s unravelling began.
In 2008, 22 bottles of red Burgundy from Kurniawan’s collection were pulled from a New York auction because the dates on the bottles were 37 years prior to when the wine was known to be produced. With his reputation being tarnished by some of the best collectors in the business, his sales plummeted; even so, he could not stop himself from continuing to buy and his credit card debt racked up. Suspicions rose further as Kurniawan’s supply seemed limitless. Where was he getting it all? Collectors at auctions started to become more cautious in spending their fortunes on lots of wine that might or might not be the vintage they claimed to be. For oenophiles, the damage caused to the wine market by the infiltration of this fraud – “a liar in a glass” – was comparable to the duplicitous betrayal of adultery.
Hellman writes that “a great old bottle is an expression of the spirit” which is why connoisseurs put such high prices on their stock and are offended by the deceit of forgeries. There are many minute details on wine labels, corks and the bottles themselves that can tip off a winemaker or buyer that a bottle has been forged. But even if all the external appearances were accurate, was it possible that collectors, who claimed to know quality simply based on experience, could be fooled by someone who had a better palate? Hellman writes: “Push the right buttons in people who think they are too savvy to be fooled, as the master counterfeiter who is the subject of this book did repeatedly, and what is billed as the rarest of wines can be sold to marks for a far higher price.” Kurniawan himself was recorded as saying: “Sometimes the experts don’t even know what they’re drinking.” Preying on this ignorance was this con man’s secret formula for pairing his fake wines with eager buyers.
One particular billionaire collector, outraged by the fraud blemishing the industry, spent over $20 million to clean up the wine trade by pinpointing that forgeries were more rampant than collectors wanted to believe. These investigations eventually led to Kurniawan being charged in the first ever criminal prosecution against a wine forger. With no precedence for issuing a verdict or a sentence, the court case broke new ground and, simply by being at that wine auction years before, Hellman found himself on the cusp of an intriguing legal development.
Even readers unfamiliar with the intricacies of wine tasting or the value of high-end wines will be captivated by the subculture that Kurniawan was welcomed into, all the while intending to sabotage and exploit it for his own fortune.