Autumn 2017

Five years since the Rudy Kurniawan, arguably the world’s most famous perpetrator of wine fraud, was convicted and sentenced to ten years in prison. Advanced students in Liberal Arts at Regent’s University London
share their thoughts on the case and what can be learnt from it.

The One Who Didn’t Get Away

Alia Abudawood

31st October 2017

The case in question is about wine counterfeiting, which took place in the early 2000s and lasted until the incarceration of Rudy Kurniawan in 2012. At first sight the story appears to be quite simple and gives the impression that maybe this is not the first and most definitely not the last instance when the labels on wine bottles are inconsistent with their content.

Kurniawan made a fortune by selling his homemade wines to private clients who were willing to pay a large amount of money to enjoy rare vintage wines (BBC News, 2014). It is odd how no one in the wine industry became suspicious until 2012 of Kurniawan and that he was selling counterfeit wines; in fact, Kurniawan received several awards and recognition from wine experts as well (Samuel, 2017). While in most of the cases Kurniawan was able to sell counterfeit wines successfully through auctions, one of his most momentous mistakes was when he dated and auctioned Clos Saint Denis wines between 1945 and the 1970s, even though Domaine Ponsot only started bottling that particular wine in 1982. This basic mistake led to the series of lawsuits against Kurniawan and the growing concerns that Kurniawan’s labels were not genuine (Cumming, 2016).

The first impression on the entire Kurniawan case of wine counterfeiting is that it is virtually impossible to judge whether or not it was an unique case or something that has been happening in the wine industry for a long time (Rosati, 2016). While the press and others tend to say that this event is the first wine fraud in history leading to imprisonment, it would be unreasonable to believe that Kurniawan was truly the first wine faker.

It is very likely that over time, some wines have been modified to improve the quality and taste, in order be sold at a higher price and make a higher profit. To some extent, the regulations introduced to identify wine origins might protect consumers when purchasing wines, however, considering the scale of Kurniawan’ operations, it can be concluded that these regulations were ultimately ineffective. An interesting point which might explain Kurniawan’s initial success of forging wines, is that no one, not even the ‘acclaimed professional wine tasters’ detected any ‘red flags’ during the wine tasting events for a long time. Kurniawan purposely used relatively aged wines such as from the early 1990s to mislead wine tasters (Sour Grapes Documentary, 2016).

This questions how most wine professionals never became suspicious during Kurniawan’s wine tasting events and auctions. According to the Sour Grapes Documentary, Kurniawan was very aware of the characteristics of aged wines: to replicate the softer taste of older wines, Kurniawan, supposedly mixed older wines with newer ones to mislead the expert wine tasters. The true extent of Kurniawan’s wine forgery has not been and probably never will be discovered. Kurniawan’s simple labelling techniques was very similar, almost undetectable to those used on wine bottles in the 1920s and the 1930s (Sour Grapes Documentary, 2016). Kurniawan’s case sparked several discussions about wine professionals to protect wine consumers from purchasing counterfeit products, which is becoming a large issue for the industry (Wang, 2017).

The wine fraud scandal obviously raised wine tasters’ and collectors’ awareness of the importance of purchasing wines from credible sources and paying more attention whenever vintage wines are purchased (Lee, 2017). Other than examining some of the physical appearances of the wines such as the labels, colour, and the glass itself, technology might offer solutions to prevent wine fraud from happening or at least to lessen the problem in some regions, such as in China, which is one of the largest markets for counterfeit wines (Lee, 2017).

RFID chips might be used on wine bottles to ensure that the content matches the description shown on the bottle label and to prevent bottle refilling, which is what Kurniawan was doing (Przyswa, 2014). This technology may also prevent counterfeit wine producers to refill bottles since the QR codes along with the RFID chips will be already recorded so the next customer holding the bottle will know that the wine in the bottle is not originally from the wine cellar shown on the label (Lee, 2017). Once this technology is widely used, both manufacturers and wine consumers could be assured about the quality and the origin of wines in the bottles (Przyswa, 2014).

The primary advantage of this technology is that it does not involve the opening of the bottle. If more and more wine manufacturers apply RFID technology to track wine products, counterfeiters will face a great difficulty in selling fake wine products to consumers, even if advanced methods are used to match the taste and the consistency of old wines.