Over fall break I attended a lecture on revolutions in the wine industry. These revolutions stemmed from wine production and wine sale, to forgery. Naturally, my eye was drawn towards the mysterious. Wine forgery has been around for thousands of years; there have been biblical tales of creating duplicitous wines in order to fool into thinking you are of a higher monetary value than you are; even some middle English works have involved imposter wine. That’s not what this lecture was about, however. The main focus was on a man named Rudy Kurneawan, a fairly young, fairly unknown, Indonesian man who has a truly natural talent for wine. For years, he was an active member in some round table wine clubs that included some extremely high rollers, like billionaire Bill Koch. He bought, sold, traded, and drank some of the finest, rarest, and most valuable wine in the world. This, as I found out, what his game. He became “buds” with some of the worlds’ elite, gaining their trust, admiration, and respect. He is a confidence man. The best conman the wine world has ever seen.
Rudy’s scheme was just as much art as thievery – he created nearly perfect versions of hundred-year-old wine, and sold it, gifted it, and auctioned it. For me, the most mesmerizing part of this lecture was when his process was explained. To gather the bottles, he frequented auction sites, and scavenged through dumpsters. He selected only the finest quality glass that would meet his requirements for age, weathering, and structure. For the labels, he had a high quality embosser, printer, die cutter, and silk screener. The labels were incredibly impressive, even to the trained eye; the age and weathering were immaculate. For bottles that rudy had claimed had come from an old cellar, he even added traces of mold to the labels to validate his statements.
As amazing as his label making technique was, what was more amazing was his ability to closely recreate the taste of a wine from memory. Wine counterfeiting is not an exact science, as there is no exact taste that a wine must have. To recreate 1982 Chateau Lafite-Rothschild, you need a quality starter of Bordeaux, and an ounce or two of some California cab to add a little funk. This is the type of recipe that is used in order to recreate some of the best flavor profiles and bottles of wine on the planet.
Laurent Ponsot, the proprietor of Domaine Ponsot (one of the greatest wine makers of our time), spotted vintages of Clos St Denis from 1945 and 1971, even though the family vineyard only started producing that wine in 1982. Small mishaps like these are the only reason that Rudy was caught. Counterfeiting wine, it seems, is fairly simple. In fact, there was a study done in 2001, that embarrassed experts across the globe: at first 12 wine experts were given a mediocre wine, which they critiqued as “weak.” 7 days later, they were given the same wine, but labeled as Grand Cru, and the same 12 experts lauded the wine as “complex” and “mighty.”