Yesterday the world of collectible wines saw one of its biggest hucksters, Rudy Kurniawan, sentenced to 10 years in prison. Among other offenses, Kurniawan was found guilty of having created hundreds of fraudulent wine bottles from noteworthy Bordeaux and Burgundy estates, which he sold for tens of thousands of dollars each to wealthy, unsuspecting collectors – many of whom, in turn, resold those bottles on the auction market for further profit. Kurniawan’s scheme, until he was discovered in an FBI raid, netted him millions – most of it swindled from extremely wealthy wine collectors.
While Kurniawan certainly deserves his tough sentence, he also deserves a gentle pat on the back. Kurniawan was by no means the first wine fraudster to come along (read Billionaire’s Vinegar for the story of the true trailblazer), and he isn’t likely to be the last. But the reason he deserves some small measure of praise is because he showed that the entire nature of collectible wines has nothing to do with the actual quality or enjoyment of wine. At all.
To wit: All the world’s most noted wine experts and sommeliers were duped by Kurniawan’s concoctions. Although they were corked under impressively forged bottles and labels, few – if any – critics or collectors raised red flags about the authenticity of the juice for years. Many even claimed the wines tasted superb. For all anyone knows, the so-called experts were drinking $10 Malbec mixed with Bartles & Jaymes, lighter fluid and Four Loko.
The lesson Kurniawan has taught us: Collecting the rarest wine treasures is an endeavor of the absurd, not the epicurean. If you buy a $10,000 or $50,000 bottle of wine, it’s purely to say to the world that you can – not to be able to experience 750ml of fermented grape juice that smells and tastes better than all other fermented grape juices. You’re a smarter wine shopper if you buy a bottle of wine with the intention to uncork and enjoy it, even if it costs just $10.
If you still believe, though, that millionaires and billionaires are somehow more sophisticated wine tasters, consider the recent experience of a friend who visited Bern’s, the famous Tampa steakhouse noted for its centuries-deep wine list. He ordered a bottle of Domaine Romanée-Conti, the rare Burgundy that’s the most coveted among collectors – as well as one of the most counterfeited. The gentleman paid $600 for the privilege of drinking an authentic DRC (most anywhere else in the world, he’d have paid much more, but Bern’s deals directly with the producers). His verdict: Not that great. Certainly no better than the Pinots he’s tasted that cost a fraction of the price.
Still, my friend is smarter for having spent a few hundred bucks the one time to learn that the wine’s not for him. Those who spend $60,000 on a bottle of DRC purely to say they can own it or turn a profit on it, however, in some small measure deserve what they got from Kurniawan: a lesson that even a $10 Malbec can bring incredible joy if presented in a manner that appeals to the individual person. Moreover, using a bottle of wine for any other purpose than which it was intended is no good use for wine at all.