Wine Diarist

Kurniawan, Connoisseurs, and the Selective Deception Hypothesis

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 Just a few weeks later, Kurniawan’s 38 bottles were abruptly withdrawn from the Acker auction, along with a number of other Ponsot bottles that he was attempting to sell, after it was pointed out to Kapon that Domaine Ponsot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.