Sour Grapes: The Rudy Kurniawan story is now available on Netflix so I’m republishing this thing I wrote for the Spectator back in September. The documentary is well worth seeing. I also wrote a more in-depth thing on it for Tim Atkin.
Last week a Hong Kong-based wine professional posted a bottle, a 1959 Richebourg from Henri Jayer, on twitter. It’s worth thousands of pounds but more importantly for a Burgundy lover, tasting it should be the experience of a lifetime. Maureen Downey, an American expert in wine authentication, confidently tweeted back, it’s a fake.
Wine fakes are in the news at the moment with the imminent release of a documentary Sour Grapes. It’s the story of Rudy Kurniawan, an Indonesian national, based in California who was convicted in 2013 for faking some of the world’s great wines. Between 2002 and 2012 Kurniawan sold about $100 million worth of wine.
Maureen Downey who had her suspicions about Kurniawan way back in 2003 told me that people “should’ve seen a 20-something kid suddenly selling cases & cases of the rarest wines & posed a question or two.” Why they didn’t might have something to do with the crowd that Kurniawan moved in. Kurniawan’s cronies included American author Jay McInerney who features in the film sockless and showing a lot of ankle, fantastically louche-looking filmmaker Jeff Levy and Arthur M. Sarkissian whose oeuvre includes Rush Hour, Rush Hour 2 and Rush Hour 3. Another of their number, auctioneer John Kapon, made a fortune from selling Kurniawan’s wines and not asking too many questions. For these men drinking ultra rare and expensive wines was a form of willy-waving like having a Porsche or model girlfriend. Downey describes the scene as one of “greed, and hubris and disgusting male posturing.”
But it’s not only testosterone-fuelled fools who fall for fakes. That 1959 Richebourg drinker is not only female but a Master of Wine, a qualification that takes years of intensive training. There are only 354 in the world. If she couldn’t spot a fake, then what chance does that give the rest of us? With wines this rare and old nobody really knows what they are meant to taste like. Kurniawan’s recipe for 1945 Mouton-Rothschild was 50% 1988 Ch Cos d’Estournel, 25% 1990 Ch Palmer and 25% 2000 California Cabernet. There’s a fake I’d like to try!
The trick Kurniawan mastered was to mix in fakes with genuine bottles at tastings and then rely on peer pressure to silence any sceptics. British Master of Wine Jancis Robinson has written of how she had her doubts about the authenticity of wine provided by a Danish collector Rene Dehn but didn’t voice them.
It’s impossible to know how widespread fakes are. In the film Laurent Ponsot, a Burgundy producer who proves Rudy’s nemesis, alleges that most pre-1980 Burgundies sold at auction are not genuine. I spoke with expert on forgery Nick Bartman who told me of Chinese counterfeiters who “take the blueprint of Kurniawan and put it out on a much bigger scale.”
Maureen Downey runs a series of training days where one can learn how to spot a fake. Her advice is “if it looks too good to be true, it is.” The trouble is that when confronted with a really rare bottle, most wine lovers switch off their critical faculties which is why Kurniawan got away with it for so long.