So, Rudy Kurniawan is the first person to be convicted in the USA by a Federal Court of counterfeiting wine. It seems that the fine wine auction market is awash with fakes, and the auction houses haven’t been up to the task of authenticating the lots that have been consigned with them. It has been up to others, such as Laurent Ponsot and knowledgable collectors, to bring to light the fake bottles.
What are we to make of fakes? Sadly, they are here to stay, simply because it is so easy to fake old wine. Auction houses and collectors are now sensitized to the existence of fakes, but for a long time it was easier for everyone to be in denial. No collector wants to have any suspicious bottles in their cellar; for the auction houses open acknowledgement of the scale of the problem would cost them lots of money.
The only wine auctioneer I have heard speak candidly about the problem is Serena Sutcliffe. I interviewed her for an article in The World of Fine Wine in 2007 (which can be accessed here), and this is what she had to say:
Frauds are a big worry, and not just in the auction scene. If I could give you a pound for every fake bottle I have seen or tasted, I would be as rich as Croseus. It has happened over the last 20 years with a tremendous escalation recently, with huge money swirling about and totally innocent punters up there buying with no point of comparison. They saw them coming. It is a huge industry, especially in the USA and Asia, but unhappily it mostly seems to originate in Europe, and is then sold by middle men in the two areas indicated. A lot of money has been made. In the last few years we have seen cellars with millions of dollars’ worth of fakes in them. We might refuse them, but then they go elsewhere. They vary from the basic (with photocopied labels, etc.) to the extremely sophisticated, but there is a pattern to them, and they always originate from the same group of people, when you delve.
If a fake is a good one, how many people are going to spot it from the taste of the wine? The problem here is multifaceted. First, wine changes with age, and because of the variability of corks and the differences in storage conditions, the same wine can taste quite different from different bottles when it’s a few decades old. Second, very few have experience drinking lots of old wine, and of those who do, there’s a good chance that some of their experience is with counterfeit bottles.
With old wines, it’s not just about the taste of the wine. Consider old paintings. There was a study looking at the responses of people to real and imitation paintings that I commented on in October. If we believe something to be real, it imparts a certain value to that object that’s independent of the physical properties of the object. There is something special about old, rare, expensive wines that is a vital part of their appreciation. If I taste a special old bottle blind, I might recognize it to be elegant, complex and old, but it’s only when I see the label that I’ll really appreciate the wine to the full extent possible. A good fake will have these properties as long as no one realizes or suspects that it is a fake. No matter how delicious the fake, though, as soon as it is revealed to be a fake, it has zero value or interest.
We have to realize that many great, old wines are now pretty much drunk up. It would be great if there were an inexhaustible supply of great old Bordeaux and Burgundy, but there isn’t. We should be especially cautious of large format bottles. There wouldn’t have been many of them made. We should also be careful about wines that have been recorked or reconditioned.
There are a lot of fakes out there. Kurniawan is off to do some jail time, but many of the bottles he counterfeited are still out there. Are the auction houses going to be careful enough in their authentication procedures? Auctions will be under quite a bit of scrutiny. Watch out for routes to market subject to less scrutiny, such as private client sales and high-end ticketed events.
The worst thing about the whole counterfeit wine saga is the suspicion it has planted in everyone’s minds. Whenever an old bottle is opened, there’s always doubt in the back of my mind: is this the real thing?