A four-year investigation by the US Federal Bureau of Investigation has recently resulted in the arrest of a Rudy Kurniawan in California on multiple charges of what may be the largest fine-wine fraud case in history. Over the years, Rudy is estimated to have sold inferior wines under top Burgundy wine labels amounting to what could well be in excess of $50 million (about Rs 275 crore at today’s exchange rate)!
The full details are given in a brilliantly-written story by Michael Steinberger in the July 2012 issue of Vanity Fair magazine (“A Vintage Crime”): “Mr Kurniawan specialised in rare old Burgundies selling for anything from $1,000 per bottle upwards, and was caught because he slipped-up selling vintages that had never been produced.”
What is even more incredible is how this individual got away for so many years selling wines that were not what the label said they were — obviously, few people know the difference between imitation wine and the real stuff, which merely goes to prove what “vino- sceptics” have been shouting themselves hoarse about for years (that people drink labels, not the wine).
Interestingly, this reminds me of that adage “old wine in new bottles”, which originated in the early 1900s when Phylloxera devastated vineyards in Europe so that there was little good new wine available, leading to widespread fraud whereby vendors started putting bad old wine in new bottles and trying to pass it off as good new wine. This in turn led to the practice at all reputable hostelries of bringing the unopened wine bottle to the table, opening it in front of the guests, presenting him the cork for inspection and obtaining prior approval of the host by pouring a tasting sample. The practice continues — and thankfully, for one never knows whether the wine in a bottle has been oxidised or corked due to poor storage conditions.
What does such an exposé imply for wine lovers in India? Not much, really. Stringent and outmoded government controls and rules and regulations proscribe any chance of a tertiary or auction market for any wine, fine or otherwise. Why, even keeping more than 12 or 24 bottles at your home risks falling afoul of the law, forget building a private collection with hundreds or thousands of bottles.
More to the point, this underscores what I have been saying for some years: that it is better to drink good Indian wines than imported plonk at twice the price. Yes, Magan, there are some good wines being made in India, and their quality will only continue to improve — see my last article here.
And what about those horrifically expensive French wines available at star hotels? You’d better have wide experience, deep pockets, a large heart and a discerning nose and palate to check the provenance and quality of each bottle in advance!
Wines I’ve been drinking: The Yellowtail Chardonnay they opened for me at ‘My Place’ at the Movenpick Middle Eastern Food Festival was undeniably oxidised, so I changed to a Sula Dindori Shiraz Reserve 2010 that did justice to the Lamb Kibbeh and Meat Sambusa being dished out by chef Ali Mohammad from Jordan.
No, Movenpick is not just an ice cream — it’s the first in a chain of star hotels being set up in India by the eponymous Swiss hotelier, and which has probably the best buffet in Bangalore, well worth the half-hour trek to BEL Circle on the outer ring road in Bangalore.
Alok Chandra is a Bangalore-based wine consultant