Why Rare Wine Collecting Is Kind Of Like Having Sex With Animals (Thoughts On The Rudy Kurniawan Fraud Trial)

Vinted on January 7, 2014 binned in best of, commentary, wine news

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.

Cheers!

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    Comments

  • gabe


    That was a bit of a stretch, but I liked it.

    One way to make sure your wine is not a fake is to get it from the source. Have you heard about the Eyrie Vineyards Library Wines? They are testing each bottle from their library, recorking them, and making them available to the public. I tasted a few last time I was in the tasting room, and they were really fantastic (and guaranteed authentic).

    • 1WineDude


      Gabe, you ain't seen nothing yet! I plan on getting more weird in 2014. Anyway, love controlled recorking programs, sounds similar to Penfolds. Wish more brand did that.

      • gabe


        More weird is always better in my book. BTW, did you notice that Matt Kramer just echoed your sentiment about aged wines being much tougher to identify?

        • 1WineDude


          Gabe – yeah, a couple of people had pointed that out to me. I'll bet he wasn't planning on ever working in bestiality, though!

          • gabe


            lol. now that's an issue of Wine Spectator I'd pay to read

            • 1WineDude


              HA!!!

  • @StanTheWineMan


    Joe,
    You hit the nail on the head with the comment about human nature. By the way, do you think Kramer is a closet hobknocker? Cheers!

    • 1WineDude


      Stan – thanks. No, he's a not so closet muckraker, though.

  • mmwine


    I had a great comment written up about this article. However, I think I'll just make it a blog post, and link to your site tomorrow :)

    • 1WineDude


      mmwine – Looking forward to that!

  • Bob Henry


    Joe,

    Citing this Wine-Searcher article . . .

    "World Record Price Raises DRC Ceiling”

    Link: http://www.wine-searcher.com/m/2013/11/world-reco

    . . . here are 476,280 “good” reasons to fake rare wine.

    'Enuf said.

    Happy new year.

    ~~ Bob

    ( "Full disclosure": Rudy K was an occasional participant at my Saturday winetasting luncheons in Los Angeles, showcasing California "cult" Cabernets and Merlots and Cab/Merlot blends. By way of example, he contributed the oldest bottles to our 20 year vertical tasting of Opus One.
    http://www.kirktech.com/bob_henry/

    At the conclusion of those tastings, he never asked to take home any empty bottles as "mementos.")

    • 1WineDude


      Bob, I'm not arguing that that's no market for counterfeit wine, only that the market is rarified and offering some reasons add to why it's lucrative.

      • Bob Henry


        Joe,

        Not questioning your comment — rather just pointing out that the incentive to fabricate fakes will always be there when more-money-than-brains fools pay that kind of coin for "potent potables."

        ~~ Bob

        • 1WineDude


          Bob, thanks, understood. I think the cautionary tale takeaway is that people need to sirens due diligence in checking expensive purchases like these, because the thieves will always be out there. Cheers!

  • Bob Henry


    Joe,

    Laser etching glass bottles with identification info is arguably the most cost effective approach wineries can embrace to thwart counterfeits.

    intaglio printing labels like Harlan's are another (albeit expensive) approach.

    Rudy K had access to computers, graphics software, scanners, printers, corks, capsules, paper and label glue. But not laser etching equipment.

    ~~ Bob

    • 1WineDude


      Bob, you're probably right. But I doubt collectors would demand the etching. Hopefully that changes given the spotlight being shined on wine fraud through news like this.

      • Bob Henry


        Joe,

        I'm just about to call it a night.

        What's YOUR excuse for being up? (Your reply to my reply was posted "11 minutes ago.")
        http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ENjKi7NkTNE

        I leave it to you if you wish to redact this reply.

        ~~ Bob

        • 1WineDude


          Ha! Bob, I'm on the East Coast…

  • Carl Helrich


    I think you nailed it with this one, and….. you gave a mention to one of my favorite books of all-time!

    • 1WineDude


      Thanks, Carl. I'm about to check out his other books from the library, such great reads. Cheers!

  • Solomon Mengeu


    Basically every single wine website/blog/forum/writer has made comments about this Kurniawan wine fraud case; for starters cheating & lying to people is wrong morally & legally no question about that.

    Secondly people passing off inferior wine as superior wine goes back thousands of years, this is just part of us being human there will always be fraudulent people doing dishonest things; its just life. This happened thousands of years ago, it happens today & will always happen.

    Thirdly though while money is always a good thing whenever there is exorbitant amounts of it around, being spent, made or invested big problems tend to occur. Look at what happened in the 2008 financial crisis and how things that used to be mainly about art or entertainment e.g. sports or films are now chiefly and largely only about money which leads to embezzlement, bribes & corruption.

    Don't get me wrong money is a very important fact of life and so it should be, but when these wines reach such high & crazy levels its almost begging counterfeiters and criminals to copy them & pass them off as real to the 1% that are ultra high net worth individuals but aren't that great wine experts.

    This is probably an unrealistic idea but I think for these limited production 'super' wines rather that there being stratospheric prices for them.That the prices should be very high but held like a lottery or raffle where there is a certain amount of numbers/cases available and if you happen to pick the right number, then you get to buy the wine. And if not then you get to try again next year & keep your fingers crossed; yes its a very fanciful notion indeed I know.

    In closing while this court case will teach wineries & auction houses to be more careful & mindful about provenance I don't think in the long term it will have any lasting impact on the whole issue of rare & extremely expensive wines being faked & copied.

    Cheers!

    Solomon Mengeu

  • Solomon Mengeu


    'morally & legally WRONG'!

    • 1WineDude


      Solomon – thanks, great points. The pricing idea is interesting (though we shouldn’t hold out too much hope of that one taking off anytime too soon, I suppose).

  • Michael


    I am also digging more into the wine topic. As a rookie, I can tell you – when ever I try to order a wine and I am not getting the bottle – that stinks. I always ask for it and the bottle has to be opened in front of me. It happened a couple of times that restaurants served a totally different wine. Not sure if it happened by accident or by purpose. Also, some restaurants just charge an absolute strange price. If you are not familiar with wine, it's easy to get ripped of.

  • Bob Henry


    Michael,

    Out here in California, you legally own the bottle you order and consume in a restaurant. That includes taking a partially consumed bottle home with you in a "doggy bag." (Be respectful of "open container" laws.) Likewise you own the fully consumed or poured out bottle as a keepsake.

    So if a restaurant doesn't open the bottle in front of you (and that should include the "wine-by-the-glass" program, to assure freshness) . . . or doesn't allow you to take the empty bottle home . . . speak to the manager or owner. Don't be cowed about asserting your rights.

    ~~ Bob

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