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Kurniawan, Connoisseurs, and the Selective Deception Hypothesis

2013 December 17
by Mike

One of the Rudy memes making the rounds is the theory that he had authentic bottles alongside all the knockoffs and that he was careful not to serve or sell his counterfeit wines to people who were likely to recognize them as such, in particular Allen Meadows. In response to my last post, in which I questioned why Kurniawan’s attorneys hadn’t sought to put Meadows on the witness stand, several people wrote to me suggesting that Kurniawan had used Meadows as part of a pump-and-dump scheme, serving him legit bottles in order to gin up demand for those wines, demand that Kurniawan then satisfied with his fakes. In a comment on eBob yesterday, Robert Parker posited this very scenario (although he didn’t cite Meadows by name). The underlying assumption is that Meadows was much too good a taster to be fooled by sham bottles, and that Kurniawan knew this and plied him with genuine bottles instead. What everyone seems to be forgetting is that there was at least one instance in which Kurniawan is known to have served Meadows a counterfeit wine, and we know this because it was one of the bottles that triggered Kurniawan’s downfall. However, it wasn’t Meadows’s palate that snagged Kurniawan.

In early April 2008, John Kapon hosted a rollicking dinner in Los Angeles that was attended by, among others, Meadows and Kurniawan, who contributed several bottles to the bacchanal. The dinner was a presale roadshow for an Acker Merrall auction that was scheduled for later that month in New York. The centerpiece of the auction was a large cache of wines consigned by Rob Rosania, A.K.A. Big Boy, who was also at the dinner and apparently supplied most of the bottles that were opened that night. But Kurniawan had consigned some wines to the April 25th sale, as well, including 38 bottles of Domaine Ponsot Clos Saint-Denis from the years 1945-1971, and one of the bottles that he brought to the dinner in Los Angeles was a 1959 Domaine Ponsot Clos Saint-Denis. Just a few weeks later, Kurniawan’s 38 bottles were abruptly withdrawn from the Acker auction, along with a number of other Ponsot bottles that he was attempting to sell, after it was pointed out to Kapon that Domaine Ponsot hadn’t produced any Clos Saint-Denis prior to 1982.

But it was New York wine collector Doug Barzelay, not Meadows, who flagged the dubious bottles. Barzelay didn’t attend the Los Angeles extravaganza but had seen the Ponsots in the auction catalog and was puzzled because he couldn’t recall ever encountering any pre-1980s Domaine Ponsot Clos Saint-Denis. He did some poking around on the Ponsot website, which indicated that the estate had only acquired its parcel of Clos Saint-Denis in the early 80s. According to Barzelay, he then reached out to Meadows to see if he had any recollection of pre-80s Ponsot Clos Saint-Denis; Meadows told him that, in fact, he had just been served a 1959 Domaine Ponsot Clos Saint-Denis at a dinner in Los Angeles and had “also been suspicious about whether such a wine had actually been made by Ponsot.” (Barzelay ultimately contacted Laurent Ponsot to alert him to the Acker auction, which set in motion the events that led to Kurniawan’s arrest four years later.)

However, if Meadows had doubts about the bottle’s authenticity, he evidently didn’t share his concerns with Kapon, and based on what Kapon subsequently wrote, it appears that Meadows had no qualms about how the wine tasted. Several days after the Los Angeles get-together, Kapon published one of his Vintage Tastings missives, porn-ishly titled “Big Boy Does Los Angeles”, in which he recapped the evening.  Here’s what Kapon had to say about the 59 (I’m including the preamble, which makes for interesting reading, too):

“There was another guest flight, but this one was planned, as there is also a guest consignment in Rob’s sale from ‘THE Cellar.’ Rudy had long since arrived on the scene, and he brought gifts, two flights of them, in fact. Rudy and Rob have developed a great friendship over the years with their comparable generosity and passion for rare, old wines. I should start a dating service lol.

“The first wine in this second flight of red wines first had oats and brown sugar in its nose, also having classic bouillon, garden, earth and dirt. Flavors of citrus, earth and ‘caramel’ (Jerry) were present in this tangy wine, and Allen was all over its ‘lemongrass’ quality, and it was just that! Clean and almost crisp, this was a mellow yet solid bottle of 1959 Ponsot Clos St. Denis Vieilles Vignes that had nice spice and stayed fresh (95).

Kapon’s tasting note clearly suggests that Meadows was enthusiastic about the wine. The specter of fraud didn’t seem to be weighing on Meadows the following day, either. In the first paragraph of his article, Kapon wrote,

“Allen Meadows, aka the Burghound, was there, and the next morning had this to say to Rob: ‘Seriously, I have attended a lot of really nice events over the years, but this one ranks in my top five ever, which is saying something,’ or as he put it to me, ‘Dude. That was AWESOME.’”

There’s no way of knowing for sure without seeing Meadows’s tasting note for the 59 Clos Saint-Denis, but it certainly appears that the wine itself fooled him, and that’s not surprising. Having written fairly extensively about wine fraud, I’ve come to believe that even the most experienced and knowledgeable tasters can be easily duped; in fact, wine critics may be the easiest marks of all. I’m also convinced that bamboozling so-called experts is a source of added inspiration and pleasure for wine fraudsters. I have no doubt, for instance, that the magnums of 1920s-era Pétrus that Hardy Rodenstock uncorked for Robert Parker and other luminaries in Munich in 1995 were bogus. They may have tasted like 100-point wines to Parker, but I am confident that they were also 100 percent fake. Rodenstock plainly saw that hubris and desire make people exquisitely vulnerable to the kind of deception that he perpetrated, and he knew this to be as true of wine gurus as it was of wine collectors—and probably even more so. I think he got a thrill from trying to hoodwink recognized authorities like Parker and Michael Broadbent, and it seems to me that he understood them better than they understood themselves. I suspect it was the same with Kurniawan, and it is highly unlikely that the 59 Domaine Ponsot Clos Saint-Denis was the only counterfeit wine that he shared with Meadows.

Oh, and for those keeping track at home: another wine served at the Los Angeles dinner was a bottle of 1945 Romanée-Conti. Go figure.

10 Responses leave one →
  1. June 11, 2014

    More on Robert Rosania and his Maximus project here: https://www.indybay.org/newsitems/2014/06/08/18757077.php

    Is there a connection between his wine and development money?

  2. Michael S Mora permalink
    December 19, 2013

    Fooling the ‘experts’ with fraudulent wine is easy as most of them are frauds themselves.
    It is in fact the wine dinner version of a boys camp circle jerk.
    If Kapon et al weren’t part of the fraud then they’re fools who have no business in the business.

  3. December 18, 2013

    Like Claude, I am saddened that Burgundy is being transformed from a lovely drinkable thing to a desired collectible thing. I have great apprecaition for those who collect wine to drink, but am saddened by those who collect wine for speculative reasons. To the best of my ability, as a retailer, I try to allocate the scarce Burgundies to customers who wnat to drink them rather than flip them. I am also exploring the lesser-known appelations, and looking for new growers, not yet on the radar to offer at fmore avorable prices.

  4. Frank permalink
    December 18, 2013

    Mike, you made a cryptic comment about Cesium dating. I presume you refer to the fact that the atomic bomb tests and Chernobyl released Cs-137 into the atmosphere, and it was subsequently taken up by grape vines. There was no Cs-137 in the atmosphere before 1945, it rose during the ’50s and ’60s, then fell until it spiked in the ’90s with Chernobyl. Cs-137 has a half-life of about 30 years, so should be detectable for a long time to come (at least a century). The residue in the bottle would probably be enough to get an analysis. Similarly, Carbon-14 spiked at the same time. It would show up in the label or cork, and could be determined non-destructively. It may also be possible to estimate the average temperature of the alleged vintage in the same way we estimate temperatures in ice cores. An old wine would have a characteristic, non-forgeable isotopic composition.

    Clearly, someone who can afford $100 K for a bottle of wine can afford the services of a nuclear chemistry department. The alleged romance overcame useful skepticism – it’s happened before, and on other pleasures besides the vinous ones.

  5. December 18, 2013

    Mike,

    The real comedy is that because he fooled “experts,” people, especially the suckers, say Rudy must have an astonishing palate. I read that over and over again, and I’ve written about it satirically. An expert can never admit to having been duped (though it would be interesting to have Burghound confess that, hell, he was drunker than a Toronto mayor, and may have been fooled), therefore the con man must be some kind of genius or idiot savant. Rudy isn’t either one. He’s a below-average con man. As you say, he recognized the hubris of the “experts” and treasure hunters and took advantage of them. Yet, ultimately, Rudy fell prey to that same hubris and that was his downfall.

  6. December 18, 2013

    It is indeed sad to see the prices of the best Burgundies go through the roof. Consumers with “comfortable means” can no longer afford the top wines from the best producers, and soon this could also be the case for some of the lesser wines from the top end producers.

    This is however not the biggest problem – the high prices makes these wines an object for fraudulent people even in the recent vintages.

    I have known for deccades that fake bottles of old wines are sold on the market, and that these wines circulates between rich collectors. Now I have to think about fraudulent bottles of Burgundy even in young vintages … if I find them outside the official importer channels.

  7. Claude Kolm permalink
    December 17, 2013

    HI, Mike,

    You are absolutely correct about the anger in Burgundy for the most part about the high prices. Most (but not all) producers with whom I discussed the situation on my visit last month are not happy with the spiraling prices for their wines — most mark them up (rightly) because if the market is going to support absurd prices, the producers should be the ones to get the recompense due to the fact that they are the ones who did the work and took the risks in producing the wines.

    One producer of a Burgundy that now regularly is seen only in 4-digit dollar prices told me that he is not going to take any steps to be able to validate his wines. At first, this might sound bizarre, but the reasoning is sound (with one complication that I’ll discuss below): he sells to his private customers in the expectation that they are buying for their own consumption, not to flip. He can’t enforce that on wine sold through distribution channels, but at least those buying for their own consumption who buy from authorized channels will know that they are getting the real thing. By not taking steps to be able to verify resold bottles, he devalues them, and thereby reduces the incentive to buy his wines for speculative purposes. The complication is that at least in the U.S. (and I think in U.K, too), the wines largely are accumulated by a few big players. For example, the Burgundy buyer at a local shop that sells a lot of Burgundy told me that five big players get the pick of whatever comes in before anything is offered to the general public — and he knows for a fact that they are not buying only for their own consumption.

    That said, the situation is not as dire as it could be because there is so much great wine being produced from regions and appellations that (at least so far) are not highly sought after. Yes, you’re not going to get a wine as thrilling as Musigny from Pernand-Vergelesses, but you still can get a damn good and interesting wine from there for $50-60 or less. And it’s the same in most other regions, too — Piedmont, Northern Rhône, Germany, to cite a few examples: other than the top few names, the wise consumer can still drink much better than in the past for not that much money; but the absolute summits are getting beyond the means of all but the super rich.

    What is being lost, though, is the culture of wine, the complete knowledge that used to be achievable for people who were not super-rich (although they were of comfortable means) — and this is something that several of the most prominent Burgundy producers have been worrying and talking to me about in recent years. It will not be easy to fashion a solution.

  8. December 17, 2013

    Wouldn’t it be great, Jack, if one of these guys would come clean and explain the exact nature of his con and who he conned and with what? That would be fantastic, but it will surely never happen. A Rudy memoir? That could be interesting.

    Thanks for stopping by, Claude. The similarities between the art market and the fine wine market–the spiraling prices, the proliferation of fraudulent works–are obvious, of course, but that doesn’t make them any less fascinating. Verification is indeed a dicey business–in art, for sure, but perhaps even more so in wine because it involves taste. I mentioned hubris, and I really do think the word fits. Parker goes off to Munich never having tasted any of those wines but somehow feels qualified to not only declare them all legit, but to award them huge scores–that’s hubris, and he was obviously not the only person guilty of it. You make a great point about Burgundy, and your advice perfectly echoes what a prominent Burgundy winemaker said to me last year: buy on release, keep the wines in your cellar. As you know, the Kurniawan affair has caused a lot of anger in Burgundy, and I don’t think there’s much sympathy for all these rich collectors who got fleeced. If it looks too good to be true….

  9. Claude Kolm permalink
    December 17, 2013

    A long time ago, when I was in graduate school studying art history, I worked in the summers as a customs inspector at JFK. This was so long ago that there was actually fairly tight enforcement of the customs and agriculture laws; on certain flights, every passenger had all of his or her baggage searched. I was frequently asked by friends what percentage of people tried to cheat. The answer was, we didn’t know because we only knew about those passengers we caught cheating, not the ones who evaded detection.

    It’s also instructive to look at what art historians thought were genuine paintings prior to the use of scientific analysis of the materials of paintings. Many of those paintings subsequently have been shown by scientific testing not to be as old as would be necessary if they were genuine.

    And of course, there are many, many examples of self-deception. Perhaps the most powerful ones are the fake Vermeers that appeared in the 1930s, and which no one believed to be fake when the forger confessed, even though to our eyes today, they look nothing like anything Vermeer did. The forger had to prove in a court of law that he had faked them because the experts refused to believe him! Googling should get you two fairly recent books about the affair, as well as a fascinating commentary by Errol Morris on the NY Times website: http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2009/05/27/bamboozling-ourselves-part-1/?_r=0.

    In short, verification is a very chancy game, and there are and will be lots of errors. This especially is the case when one is dealing with rare old wines that the judge may never have tasted before or would have only tasted on a limited number of occasions, at most, and for which he or she must rely on memory (and of course, there is substantial variation among genuine bottles of old wine).

    Alas, I am convinced that fake wine, at all levels, is much, much more widespread than most people recognize. And for Burgundy, at least, we are coming into a string of short vintages that is going to shoot the prices very high for the most sought-after wines, further increasing the incentive for the fakers. All you can do to protect yourself is to obtain the wine as early as possible and as close to the cellar as possible in the distribution chain.

  10. Jack Bulkin permalink
    December 17, 2013

    Your conclusion may very well be accurate Mike. The only way that we will ever know is by an admission by Rudy. Will he ever have the initiative to admit his past actions and recipes? Maybe oneday he will solicit you to write his memoirs. Thanks for brining us these informative updates.

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