When midnight struck on Rudy Kurniawan’s fairytale wine charade, the moment caught many fine-wine collectors and investors wondering just what surprises might be hiding in their cellars.
After his arrest in March 2012 for staccato-paced wine fraud, Kurniawan (presently awaiting trial in New York) went from darling to devil. Specifically he was indicted for trying to pass off at least 84 bottles of Burgundy to an auction house, but the implications of what authorities found in his house point to a vast fraud: sealing wax, thousands of printed labels, vintage empties, foil wrappers, corks, rubber stamps, and more.
Some wealthy collectors and dealers might have preferred not even to know the fraud details — sort of a “Rudy’s gone; nothing more to see” approach. But his fall brought more questions than answers. Kurniawan is no patsy, but anyone hoping wine fraud will be buried in his legal casket is deluded. He is a symbol of what lies beneath. Yes, he is the poster-boy of counterfeit wine, but there will always be Kurniawan-types slipping their wares in the back door.
Wine producers are going high-tech to protect their brands with distinctive seals, unique bar codes and holograms. At Wine-searcher, head of Chai Consulting and counterfeiting expert Maureen Downey says time works toward the obsolescence of wine prevention technology. “Time is the enemy of today’s technology. Always have a low-tech aspect to your security plan.” Covert tagging and tamper-proof seals may lose their potency in 50 years.
Wine counterfeiters “are getting really sophisticated,” wine consultant Charles Curtis tells the Wall Street Journal. “People are reusing old bottles, reapplying labels and corks — it’s complex.”
Curtis and his company Wine Alpha spot fakes for collectors around the globe. WSJ detailed Curtis’ basic 5-point checklist — “Capsule, cork, label, glass and finally, the wine” — on tagging a fake. (From 2008-2012, Curtis was the head of wine for Christie’s in Asia and the Americas.)
1. Does the capsule/foil sleeve match the label?
2. Inspection of the cork with a jeweler’s loupe
3. Label check — cross-reference with old bottle photos
4. Bottle exam — sediment should show on one side
5. Wine liquid — “Older wines are turning orange on the edge of the wine and in the middle, it’ll be a plumy dark color. A new wine will be just dark all around.”
Wine fraud follows demand
Wine counterfeits follow demand and China has become destination No. 1 for fakes. And even though the wine auction action hasn’t shifted to Asia, Hong Kong is showing strong against London and New York. Expect wine counterfeiting stories to continue spilling out of China — and grow bigger.
Despite heightened industry awareness, efforts of counterfeiting specialists and use of technological barriers, policing wine fraud is a high-wire act. Writing at Decanter, Mike Steinberger’s summation is superb: “The counterfeiting problem didn’t begin with Kurniawan, and it won’t end with him. As long as there are people willing to pay thousands of dollars for a bottle of wine, there is going to be an incentive for other people to produce fakes. And the demand for rare wines is not going to dissipate anytime soon.”
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