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rudy kurniawan

We will sell no wine before it’s crime

tour de france sculptureIt turns out that there’s only one wine scandal, endlessly repeated. Each time in different form, but few who’ve engaged in criminal oenophilia have ever thought far outside a very narrow box. Sure, there’s been the occasional arson, a few instances of thievery (aside from the kind that extracts samples from barrels), but pretty much every other instance of nefariousness has been deception.

Wine claiming to be from a certain geography, grape, or year when it is something entirely different? As old as winemaking itself. Adulteration beyond the zillions of already legally-acceptable forms thereof? Common. Subverting the spirit, if not the letter, of the law? Widespread. Quantities that don’t quite match the availability of source material? Otherwise nonexistent or limited bottlings that impress critics or competition committees but don’t reach the public in identical form? Both old and ongoing news.

It’s almost certainly true that counterfeiting existed during the days when goatskins stood in for bottles, but only of late has it become the scandal de jure (no, I don’t apologize for the pun), moving from a story that worries a few lavishly-heeled collectors to something that isn’t just shaking up the wine world, but draws the intense attention of folks with guns and subpoenas. Caveat: I’m not going to re-detail the ongoing Rudy Kurniawan conflagration, nor the somewhat similar Hardy Rodenstock errantry that preceded it, on this blog. Those interested in a good tale can read this, obsessives with an eye for the numbing detail (like me) can go directly to the constantly-developing source material.

What fascinates me most about this story are what this scandal – and it is certainly that – says about what has become of wine culture cultists (see below), but also what it suggests about our collective palates. Both are questions that should concern not just the merchants and consumers directly affected by Kurniawan’s alleged chicanery, but any of us inclined to make even the vaguest claim towards understanding wine.

Wine culture cultists – those who are exceptionally self-possessed regarding the symbiotic relationship between their wine, their culture, and their status – should be cringing with humility right about now. (Not that, in general, anything of the sort has happened, except perhaps in private.) Because if Kurniawan and his enablers and un- or semi-coconspirators are guilty of what’s claimed, they could never have gotten away with it without a self-sustaining, endlessly self-referential, backslapping fraternity – and I use the gendered word deliberately – of self-appointed masters of the oenoverse. And here I don’t mean just those of extreme wealth who bought, traded, and made great show of extravagant drinking what may have been a veritable ocean of absurdly prestigious yet fake wine, though they certainly bear a large portion of the blame. I mean, also, the experts…many of whom are far from self-appointed, but who’ve built reputations for depth of knowledge and whose livelihoods rest on a reputation for integrity. For they, too, have been routinely and relentlessly used in this scandal,…and yet, they have also used in return, building their knowledge and fame in houses of what are far too often seen to be nonexistent cards.

Honest mistakes? One only need be charitable to think so, and yet the damage isn’t done on a bottle-by-fake-bottle basis, but by the easy cohabitation in which experts – like their moneyed brethren – were inevitably drawn into circles that should have surrounded them with suspicion rather than avarice. The lures, perhaps, are too great (though some seem to have resisted anyway), the rewards too appealing…but isn’t that the very motivation for crime in the first place? This is all very easy to say in retrospect, of course, but perhaps a change of heart is now possible. Perhaps the next Tasting of a Lifetime will be vetted in advance with more than a winking-and-nudging “because I said so.” Though given the generalized disclaiming of responsibility and transference of blame, or even outright denial, this seems sadly optimistic. The number of interested parties who’ve publicly embraced the full extent of their embarrassing responsibility for enabling accused forgers numbers far fewer than the digits on a single hand.

reflection in poolPerhaps the greater scandal affects not the top of the acquisitive pyramid, but all of us who do more than mindlessly consume. For the greater unanswered question of the various fake wine scandals isn’t which bottles are legit and which aren’t, but what’s actually in the fraudulent bottles that fooled the foolhardy and snowed the sophisticated in near-equal measure.

Any of us who pretend to professional status have likely tested our ability to identify things, formally (as in the various wine education programs) or just out of semi-morbid curiosity. Even non-professionals routinely make a game of blind-bagging wines. We’re all wrong often enough, certainly, but sometimes we’re right…a rightness that commingles with confidence as our experience grows. Some writers, merchants, and winemakers are legendarily accomplished tasters. Though it’s worth noting in caution: so, according to his friends, was Rudy Kurniawan. (And for what it’s worth, maybe he was. It would be a valuable skill to have, if he’s guilty of what’s accused.)

But what does it actually mean to be an accomplished taster? We tend not to award the credit for an ability to coax iterative nuance from a wine – Granny Smith vs. Gala, etc.– but to those who can contextualize a grasp of those nuances within their experience and say more definitive things about a wine: how it’s made, what its structure and aromas reveal, perhaps even what it is and where it’s from.

We should have learned the corollary danger of this sort of analysis from the famous “Judgment of Paris” tasting and its various restagings. But, as above, the important lessons are obscured. That some in California made wine of a quality competitive with the best of France was, in the seventies, a revelation to many, but that was a conclusion that mattered most to others: winemakers (in both places), merchants, and consumers. Those tied to the incisiveness of their palates, who before the tasting almost certainly would have believed otherwise, should have focused on the thing that mattered more: French or Californian origin? They couldn’t tell. Despite few of the tasters doubting, before the tasting (and also after), that they could, contrary to the record.

There are, let’s acknowledge, exceptionally gifted tasters who can, given a fairly-selected sample, do very well at identity-sorting. But what about when the sample isn’t fair? What about when the wines are deliberately chosen to confound expectations? Even the best tasters end up with misidentified egg on their faces, as tasting after tasting has demonstrated.

The bulk of the known wine counterfeits have been legendary bottles, or at least bottles that can pass as legendary. They’re often of an age or price that makes the number of potential expert tasters vanishingly small. (Doing away with a common objections: it is not – despite the braggadocio from certain quarters – necessarily true that the ability to afford a sufficiently large sample creates expertise, if the bulk of that sample is fake. One will have an expertise, yes, but it will be in the falsehood.) That’s a lot of pressure on a few palates…pressure to be Right, to make The Call. Heretofore, all the pressure has been behind that call being in favor of authenticity, a situation in which everyone wins: the pourer or seller of the wine, those who acquire or drink it, and the expert whose reputation is concomitantly enhanced by an ability to embrace that wine within their portfolio of experience. There hasn’t been, until very recently, any value in calling foul, and even now it’s only valuable to those whose business it is to do so, for everyone else loses money or reputation. One can immediately see how the motivations lean towards encouraging a blind eye to the potential for misdeeds.

So what of those trained experts, with decades of experience? Well, they were fooled, over and over again (and sometimes — albeit rarely — they weren’t). They’re undoubtedly still being fooled. As a result, there’s been no small amount of crowing, baying, and finger-pointing from the masses, seizing their opportunity to unclothe the emperors. Schadenfreude, they call it in German. Tall poppy syndrome, they call it Down Under…and more accurately, for the satisfaction in seeing the supposed elite taken down a notch is rooted in a desire for self-elevation at others’ expense.

We should be careful, though. The pointing finger curls around, almost reflexively, and can just as easily point at the rest of us. What were the secret recipes that made so many believe in a ’47 this, a ’29 that? We have a few pieces of the puzzle, but far from all. The fact remains that slipping counterfeit wines past our trusted organoleptic gatekeepers was awfully easy. And if it was so easy with rare wines of historical reputation, why wouldn’t it be even easier with wines of deliberate ubiquity? How hard would it be, really, to slip several million cases of fake mass-market wine past an indifferent public who has no real mechanism by which to know better? Is any drinker of (to pick on a much-abused target) Santa Margherita Pinot Grigio so intimately aware of its exact form that they’d immediately reject a fair approximation? Or climbing up the ambition scale yet still mass-market, the yellow-label Trimbach Riesling? Check off the boxes – dry, crisp, hints of iron, etc. – and who could tell where the grapes came from? The label’s not that complicated, either.

Or – here’s a thought to keep the naturalistas awake at night – how about wines in which extreme variability and the acceptance of what some term flaws are considered emblematic, even virtuous? How hard could those be to fake?

The question we all – from expert to novice – have to ask, in the wake of these scams, is: what are our palates really telling us, and can we rely on those words? If we can generate paragraphs of rapture about a retirement-age grand cru Burgundy that turns out to be mediocre négociant Burgundy ‘roided up with a little Santa Rita Hills pinot, for (theoretical) example, what useful information have our palates provided us? Only the rapture. Not a bit of data.

In other words: only the subjective stuff. Our palates continue to be excellent at telling us what we do and don’t like, and perhaps even why, but struggle mightily with the questions of who, where, when, and how. As ever, our surety about objective analysis falls flat in the face of reality.

And since much of this essay has talked about how the lessons learned from wine fakery should lead to greater humility, here’s the specific subset aimed directly at all of us: be less sure. Loosen your grip on doctrine. Attempt to know, for there’s great reward in the seeking, but don’t worship at the altar of your own knowledge. Being sure is not the same as being right, especially as “right” may not even be an option. And taste critically, with joy and skepticism in equal measure. Against wine crimes and misdemeanors, the palate has few defenses. But a defensive palate is a crime in itself.