By now, you’ll probably have heard that alleged fine wine counterfeiter Rudy Kurniawan has been found guilty of fraud in court (well, he was found guilty of wine fraud during trial in court, not found guilty within a court, although technically actually he was found guilty within a court room… oh, forget it).
You’ll also, no doubt, be nursing a raging New Year’s Eve hangover. So I’ll try to make this pithy since most likely I will also be nursing some manner of raging NYE hangover.
In the event that you’re a self-professed wine geek who hasn’t yet gotten up to speed on the whole Kurniawan Kerfuffle, I recommend taking a quick diversion over to the fine summary of Kurniawan’s alleged fraudulent activities at NPR, so that you can do a rapid catch-up.
All set? Good. Now I can explain why Kurniawan’s guilty verdict means almost nothing whatsoever to the fine wine market, and why I think it will almost certainly not even make a dent in the purchases of fraudulent wine worldwide.
But, in order to do that, I first need to explain why the collecting of rare fine wines is like having sex with animals…
In one of the behavioral experiments recounted in Dan Ariely’s excellent book Predictably Irrational, participants were asked to answer questions such as whether or not they’d consider having unprotected sex, or would find sexual encounters involving animals enjoyable. As you might predict, the answers to those questions were obvious in the extreme when participants were in a normal, relaxed state (the most common answer to both being “No”). But how do you think those same participants answered when they were in a sexually aroused state? It was as if two different people were taking the questionnaire, two people living in the same mind but who apparently had little contact with one another; there were large, statistically relevant jumps in the affirmative answers (yes, even to the bestiality-themed question). The major point is that as humans we do things in aroused states that our more logical, reposed selves would find bizarre and disarming.
What’s this have to do with rare wine collecting? The idea of getting our hands on a rare bottle of wine apparently puts some otherwise very smart and very, very, very wealthy people into an aroused state, one in which they would purchase presumably rare fine wines that according to their producers couldn’t have existed due to vintage timings, chateau name changes, and the like. That’s, like, wine fraud check 101, and yet some very smart people- people also familiar with fine wine - failed to do it, probably because the idea of owning such rare wines became heady enough to get them into a (non-sexual!) state of arousal, one powerful enough to short-circuit their more logical, calmer state of mind decisions.
That otherwise knowledgeable wine folk could be duped by fakes is nothing new in the wine world. By definition, rare fine wine is rare, and few examples exist with enough detailed tasting notes for accurate comparisons to be made for validating the provenance of much of it, particular the older stuff. In some cases, the most detailed information we have on those rare older wines might be based on fakes. It’s nothing new.
Which is why the Kurniawan trial means almost nothing for the wine business, at least not worldwide. So long as there are aroused collectors willing to be duped, we’ll have people trying to profit from the in illegitimate ways. While this most recent verdict might sound alarm bells and heightened vigilance in the U.S. fine wine market, the real money in the rare fine wine market has already moved in large part to Asia, particularly to the “new” money in China, a country not well known for devoting much more than lip service to the policing of fraud.
Many years ago, during a business trip to a sleepy industrial town just outside of Moscow, I spent something like three hours shopping for a bottle of Georgian wine. My Russian handler and I poured over bottle after bottle, holding the line at a small grocer and testing the queue patience of even the Russian locals, many of whom were used to this sort of thing. My handler rejected bottle after bottle, claiming they must have been faked, before settling on one he thought ought to be genuine. “Much more Georgian wine is sold in Russia than could ever have been made in Georgia,” he told afterward.
You want to see an end to wine fraud? You might as well try changing human nature.
Good luck with that.
The best we can do is ask producers to up their diligence, and quadruple-check our sources before forking over our hard-earned cash.