Faith in fakes

on 11 August, 2017

One of the most fascinating stories in wine, fit to stand alongside the Judgement of Paris, is that of Rudy Kurniawan, a man who managed to fool friends, auction houses and experts into believing they were drinking some of the world’s most expensive wines.

The 2016 documentary Sour Grapes, directed by Jerry Rothwell and Reuben Atlas, takes an even-handed approach to the subject matter. At one point, Jay McInerney astutely observes that there is a kind of collaboration between the forger and the dupe. You don’t really want to know it’s a fake”. More than the details of Kurniawan’s forgeries, this is the part that fascinates me – the dupe knows it might be a fake, but chooses not to look too closely in case he is right. Kurniawan’s success was made possible not so much by the ingenuity of his forgeries, but the indulgent mentality of his victims.

It’s often seemed to me that there are two kinds of tasters: those predisposed to like an expensive wine more before tasting it, and those disposed to like it less. The former are more concentrated in the trade compared with regular drinkers, who are much more likely to view the sort of vaunted wines we can’t wait to get our hands on with considerable scepticism. Is it worth it?” they ask. Can you really taste the difference?”

That’s an apposite question in the Kurniawan case. If there was a difference in taste, it was often secondary to the pleasure of conspicuous consumption. I wonder how many of his dinner guests were secretly disappointed at their first sip of some rare treasure, only to correct themselves by recalling its high critical opinion and exalted status, positively corroborated by others around the table. 

It seems to me in these moments that Michael Broadbent is right to criticise the lack of courage of so many keen amateurs (and those in the wine trade) who are reluctant to express their own opinion, to rely on their own natural sense of taste, preferring, timidly, to wait for a guru’s written-in-stone ratings”. Yet few want to go out on a limb in assembled company to say they think something is disappointing or faulty – especially when they haven’t paid for it.

I remember an instance of this when tasting a Mascarello Monprivato 2011 blind at the Wine & Spirit Education Trust. When we discussed the wine, most people – myself included – felt it was very good, but not outstanding. We were told in no uncertain terms that we had got it wrong and it was, in fact, outstanding. Of course, teaching points must be made in a classroom, but I resented being bullied out of my opinion when we had all tasted the same liquid at the same time and come to largely the same conclusion independently. Lest anyone accuse me of bias, it was a Mascarello Monprivato 2003 that sealed my intention to enter the wine trade, so I have always had a passion for the wine.

Ultimately, we all must feel empowered to call out top wines in an era where the lionisation of expensive wine has become prevalent. 

In the trade, it should be our pride to focus on those wines that offer value and distinctiveness. Retailers need to prove they can be trusted not to fall into the trap of Kurniawan’s dupes, namely being dazzled by names, other colleagues’ opinions, or simple scarcity. The role should remain to build personal relationships with both wines and customers, acting as a liaison to join the two. We must cultivate the trust of our customers by ensuring we really understand what they want and enjoy, rather than living vicariously through someone else’s bank balance by selling them the wines we wish we were drinking.

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