The only auctions we’ve ever purchased wine from were Juan Alonso’s at Le Chene benefitting the senior center, Circle of Hope’s Vine 2 Wine and an event I co-hosted: Toast and a Wish. Those were little auctions in comparison to the ones held in Napa Valley that raise hundreds of thousands of dollars, or any auction – ever – held by a respected auction house like Sotheby’s or Christie’s. Why no those? Because we don’t have that kind of money.
If you do buy wine via wine auction, or are a vinophile, you’ve undoubtedly heard the story of Rudy Kurniawan by now. (I’ll be just abbreviating his name to RK for the rest of this article, as he’s all over this.) RK wormed his way into the wine world first by buying wine in large amounts, possibly driving up price and demand, and then started selling large amounts of it.
A new film on Netflix, Sour Grapes, is an a eye-opening documentary on RK that I just watched before writing this article.
The wine RK sold via auction couldn’t be pinpointed to a specific source or cellar other than his own and he relied on the opinions, or so he said, of other respected somms of their quality.
There were no actual tests done by the auction houses to authenticate the wines before putting them up for sale.
Things unraveled when one millionaire buyer and a French winemaker started to question RK more and more. The film is compelling to watch as the sleuths uncover RK’s work and, finally, get into his Arcadia home where everything from a printing press to bottles soaking in a sink long enough to remove their labels are exposed.
We learn in the film that Petrus didn’t make a magnum for the vintage year RK sold, glossy photos of bottles in the auction program were of fakes, one winery didn’t even exist in the vintage years sold and while a label looked brand new – albeit misspellings appeared – the foil capsules were definitely from older vintages.
Also of note in the film was a person I recognized in several shots drinking with RK: Calogero Drago of Pasadena’s Celestino restaurant. I Googled their names together and found nothing. But, if you watch the film, you will see and hear from many people that trusted, and some that still trust, RK. I found that interesting too.
We wine people are a tight bunch. If I find someone I like to taste with, that is sharing some nice wines, I might not ask/care how the wine was obtained. But I would be embarrassed to have liked a wine that turned out to have been blended by someone other than the true winemaker.
There is a scene with Christian Navarro of Wally’s Wine where a few bottles of Rudy’s wine is brought in and tasted, two or three people claim it as being perfect, and Navarro calls it out for crap. That was hard to watch.
Then this hit my newsfeed: a report of Fake Whiskey in the auction market. The article highlights a 1903 Laphroaig but the story doesn’t end there. Like RK’s cellar, these whiskies may still be out there and available via auctions, and in personal collections.
How much fake wine and whiskey could there be on the market? How much may already be purchased but the buyer left unaware? Are the auction houses now taking more serious precautions? I’m a wee bit grateful not to be a millionaire right now.
For your further study:
A little more on the ongoing story of Rudy Kurniawan.
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Eve Bushman has a Level Two Intermediate Certification from the Wine and Spirits Education Trust, a “certification in first globally-recognized course” as an American Wine Specialist ® from the North American Sommelier Association (NASA), was the subject of a 60-minute Wine Immersion video, authored “Wine Etiquette for Everyone” and has served as a judge for the Long Beach Grand Cru. You can email Eve@EveWine101.com to ask a question about wine or spirits. You can also seek her marketing advice via Eve@EveBushmanConsulting.com