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Film and TV

Why are wine lovers so easy to fool?

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

Rudy Kurniawan Evidence 300x270 Rudy Kurniawan Sentence 10 Years in Prison From Wine Bars to Jail Bars

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.  

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Film and TV Wine articles

Buying wine at auction

This is a longer version of something I wrote for the Telegraph. It’s actually a bit dry but I want to have all my wine writing in one place hence why I’m posting it. Please ignore if you’re looking for jokes.

Wine auctions have been in the news lately though not for the right reasons. The case of Rudy Kurniawan, an Indonesian wine dealer, rocked the wine establishment. He made millions from selling counterfeit blue chip wines such Le Pin and Domaine de Romanee Conti. He’s just been sentenced to ten years in prison and a documentary abut him was released early this year, Sour Grapes. This shouldn’t put you off buying wine at auction just to be aware that it has the same pitfalls as buying art, antiques and vintage cars with the added one that wine is a perishable product.

Jamie Hutchinson from the Sampler with shops in Islington and South Kensington says ‘only worry about forgeries if you’re buying Domaine de la Romanee Conti, Lafite or somesuch’ More pertinent is how the wine has been stored. Extremes of temperature and bright light will damage wine. ‘A good way to check that it has been properly stored is by looking at the level in the bottle. For example a 30 year old wine such as an 82 Bordeaux, don’t buy if the wine level is below top of the shoulder.’ The auction house should be able to provide this information for you.  He added ‘wines for investment need  to be in sealed cases and stored under bond. You shouldn’t really see the wine you’re buying.’

Jamie added ‘there’s an awful lot of Bordeaux out there and most of it is overpriced.’ Bordeaux has declined dramatically in value, a case of Lafite 2009 cost £15,000 (before tax and duty) in May 2011 is now worth about £6,000, and Jamie thinks ‘it still has further to fall.’’ Burgundy however is made in such small quantities that it is less likely to lose its value. The tiny quantities mean that it doesn’t attract fund money the way Bordeaux did. His tip at auctions is to buy ‘village wines from second tier producers such as JF Mugnier, Denis Bachelet or Jean Grivot.’ These are wines from a named village such as Chambolle-Musigny but not a named vineyard within that village. If you are intent on Bordeaux, ‘buy from an underpriced vintage such as 2004, it’s the same price as 2002 and 2007 but much better and great to drink now.’

Burgundy isn’t the only area that is attracting collectors put off by the volatility of Bordeaux. Italian wines such as Barolo, Barbesco, Brunello and Supertuscans (Sassicaia, Tignaello) are starting to appear at UK auctions. We’re behind the Americans on this. They have been buying Barolo especially since the early 90s. Sergio Eposito of Italian Wine Merchants in New York is quoted as saying: ‘buying into Barolo today may be the best investment opportunity in the wine market.’

Unlike a Ferrari, you cannot restore a Mouton-Rothschild 1945 once it has been damaged.  ‘Whisky in comparison is a safe logical investment. In a sealed bottle it’s virtually indestructible’ Stephen McGinty from McTears auctioneers told me. Ian Buxton author of 100 Whiskies to Try Before You Die told me recently: ‘whisky auctions are very fashionable at the moment, springing up all over the place.’ The market in collectable whiskies divides into two types, those created by the distilleries specifically for collectors, and rare finds. In the former camp is the Macallan 1976 at around $76,000 a bottle. These are whiskies are destined never to be drunk. More interesting to Ian are ‘closed distilleries from places such as old Campbeltown. Something like Dalintober would be a special find. They stopped distilling in the 20s. A rare old malt good provenance could go for five or six figures.’ Again the key word is provenance, ‘Forgeries are a huge problem – Macallan bought a collection from Italy – paid a lot of money, and it turned out to be fake.’

Returning to Jamie Hutchinson from the Sampler: ‘don’t go into an auction without doing lots of research. Taste, learn about wine, read wine writers.’ The days of making quick money from flipping Bordeaux are over but if you do it right you can have both a sound investment and something good to drink.