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Fake wine? Consumers don’t care, and with good reason



Not sure I agree that “fake wines take a toll on everyday consumers,” as this opinion piece from the Boulder Weekly claims. (The article is by’s David White.)

It’s hard, on the surface, to see how or why 99.9% of wine drinkers are harmed by the shenanigans of a Rudi Kurniawan. They don’t play the auction game, which so often is fueled by greed and ego. They don’t even look for those kinds of wines. Nor is there any evidence of fakery among wines that don’t cost an arm and a leg. Most people just want to have a nice wine at a fair price, and they couldn’t care less that some criminal ripped off a Koch over a bottle of ’34 Romanée-Conti.

David himself concedes that the problem of counterfeit wine means little or nothing to consumers who can’t afford cases of grand cru Burgundy or first growth Bordeaux.” If it hurts anyone, it’s extremely wealthy collectors who probably don’t even properly appreciate these wines, but just buy them to show off: people who might deserve the comeuppance they get for spending so much money, for such venal reasons, on something as trivial as rarity wine, when so many people are trapped in poverty and despair.

(Did I just call wine “trivial” ? Yes, in this context: that there are far more things Koch money could do to elevate mankind than spending it on bragging-rights wine.)

But in order to prove his case that fake wines really can “take a toll on everyday consumers,” David cites the case of a guy, John, whose late father had loved ’61 Lafite. John then had the opportunity to buy a bottle of it, for $1,300, but—familiar with the Kurniawan case—John shied away. He explained, “I decided I could not risk paying $1,300 for something that wasn’t real.”

I can understand. “Once burned, twice shy,” goes the saying; although John hadn’t been one of Kurniawan’s victims, he apparently now sees every expensive bottle as suspect, and would rather save his hard-earned cash for bottles whose authenticity is near certain.

The case of John is an anecdote, one that “tugs at the heartstrings,” in David’s words, but I don’t think it represents the feelings of the vast majority of wine people, even those who aren’t rich but who might want to occasionally spend a lot of money on a special bottle. With all due respect to John, I just can’t believe that the Kurniawan case scares very many people off. I think they might want to have a conversation, or a series of conversations, first, to make sure that spending four figures on a bottle is really something they want to do. They should talk to the seller (restaurant, auction house, whatever), and to whatever experts they can find, asking tough questions about provenance, before making up their minds. And that’s a good thing.

The interesting issue this brings up is, Would somebody who drank a fake expensive wine, but didn’t know it, even notice it? It’s like one of those Zen koans: “If a tree falls in the forest and nobody hears it, does it make a sound?” You can rephrase it as, “If somebody put a lovely, full-bodied red wine into a Lafite bottle, would people who didn’t know about the ruse admire it anyway?” My belief, based on long experience, is, Yes, they’d like it anyway, because they were drinking the label, not the wine. And this applies, not just to everyday consumers like John, but even wine experts. Perhaps that ’61 Lafite was really a Second or Third Growth, snuck into the Lafite bottle; or maybe a 50-yer old Zinfandel. How would you ever know?

The point is that we drink wine with our minds as much as with our palates. It is in the mind that the mystery and romance of wine dwell. It’s good that wine possesses mystery and romance; may it always be so. But it’s horrible that certain wines have become a commodity, a Gobelin tapesty in a bottle for the uber-rich to compensate for their shortcomings in other areas. I’m not saying that law enforcement agencies shouldn’t go after these counterfeiters with maximum diligence. They should. Like white-collar criminals everywhere, the fakers should be held to account. It’s just that, for the average consumer, this Kurniawan business, and associated scandals, really has no impact. If somebody out there wants to drop $1,300 for a once-in-a-lifetime wine, they should do so without paranoia. Go to a reputable supplier, the vast majority of whom are ultra-dependable, and be assured. And consider that, even if the wine you buy is fake, you probably won’t know the difference anyway. So enjoy!

  1. Bob Henry says:

    James Laube did wine enthusiasts a public service when he prominently and persistently brought to their attention the high incidence of TCA cork taint:

    “As much as I’d like to believe that the cork industry is solving the cork issue, I’m afraid our experiences with TCA-tainted corks in Wine Spectator’s Napa office indicate otherwise. Last year we tasted more than 3,000 cork-finished wines and 6.9 percent were judged to be tainted by TCA.

    . . .

    “A few years ago, when we began tracking cork-tainted bottles in our Napa office—bottles that were flawed by TCA taint — the figure ran around 7 percent. It peaked at 9.5 percent in 2007 and then dropped back to 7.5 percent in 2008. At 8 percent, that means about one bottle per case is spoiled by cork taint, a level most people should find wholly unacceptable.”


    (Not recognized until many years later when a prized “trophy wine” is opened on a special occasion.)

    “The law of large numbers” informs us that it is more likely that a “one-time-only special occasion” consumer or fervent collector would be victimized by a cork-tainted bottle than by a Kurniawan fake.

    (Would anyone purchase an automobile or a computer or a smartphone with a 7% defect rate?)

  2. Yeah, consumers probably don’t (and shouldn’t) care if somebody is jacking up bottles of old pricey bordeaux. But that 2010 case of Languedoc Merlot being sold as Red Bicyclettes Pinot Noir back involved thousands of cases of $8 a bottle stuff. That would seem to be a different and far more problematic animal, to me a consumer.

  3. redmond barry says:

    I understand that Fred Franzia’s Reserve is now up to $3 bucks. So mis-labelled Gallo imports don’t matter so much. Plus who drinks $10 pinot noir, even from Languedoc? I know, the French.

  4. Bob Henry says:

    Dear ol’ Fred is just this decade’s Glen Ellen “Proprietor’s Reserve” vintner.

    From the Los Angeles Times “Food” Section
    (April 6, 1988, Page Unknown):

    “Glen Ellen — a Special Taste for Marketing”


    By Brue Keppel
    Times Staff Writer


    Consumers respond to “price points,” said Joe Benziger, Michael’s 33-year-old brother and Glen Ellen’s cellar master. It was a lesson that Joe and his brother, Bob, 35, had learned in developing a retail wine business in White Plains before coming to Glen Ellen.

    “You’ve got to watch the price points in the market,” Joe explained. “After all, people don’t need to buy wine, and there’s always a price point where you’ll turn to something else.”

    . . .

    In 1981, using an improvised winery and the best grapes available on their property’s vines, the Benzigers produced their first wines. These were estate-bottled 1981 vintages of Sauvignon blanc and Chardonnay that astounded the wine world (not to mention the Benzigers) by winning the top two prizes at the 1982 Sonoma County Harvest Fair. Then, while completing a permanent winery, the family bought up thousands of gallons of unwanted bulk varietal wine, which was blended, bottled and retailed at nearly jug wine prices under the Glen Ellen Proprietor’s Reserve label.

    . . . By 1984, bulk Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay were added to the Proprietor’s Reserve program, and Bruno Benziger brought them to market at the unheard of price of $3.50 a bottle — about half the price of the cheapest Chardonnay then available.

    . . .

    The payoff for Glen Ellen Winery was almost instantaneous: While the family’s business plan called for production of 30,000 nine-liter cases by 1990, by capitalizing on the ready supply of bulk varietals that goal was surpassed within 18 months. From 6,450 cases sold in 1982, sales topped 1.5 million cases last year, according to Bruno Benziger. And the company is running ahead of its 1988 projection of 2.2 million cases sold.

    Thus, propelled by mass marketing of the Proprietor’s Reserve line and the critical success of its estate-bottled varietals, Glen Ellen Winery achieved in barely half a decade a strong brand and a solidly financed operation.

    And the postscript . . .

    From the Los Angeles Times “Business” Section
    (September 29, 1993, Page Unknown):

    “Nation’s Third-Largest Wine Firm to Buy Successful Glen Ellen Line”


    By Dan Berger
    Times Staff Writer

  5. I guess I’m old fashioned, but fraud is fraud. just because the person being defrauded is rich and conservative doesn’t mean they “deserve” to be ripped off.

    I guess we shouldn’t have any safety laws around Gulfstream or luxury aircraft, afterall, if a $90m plane crashes, who cares? that rich person should have given that money away and not bought something so vain as a personal airplane.

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