wine snobs got doctor conti while the rest of us get two buck chuck

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FORGERY IS A TIME-HONORED TRA­DI­TION in the world of artRo­man artists made copies of Greek sculp­tures, al­though whether the pur­chasers of these fakes were aware of their origin is un­known. Forg­ers have taken on new im­por­tance since the 19th cen­tury, as the name of the artist of­ten has more mean­ing to a cus­tomer than the ac­tual qual­ity of the paint­ing. Of course, mak­ing an ex­act copy of a paint­ing, doc­u­ment, or even a sig­na­ture and pass­ing it off as the real thing is a crime.

The most ex­pen­sive wines are so rarely drunk, few can claim to be ex­pert on how they taste.

Some forg­ers who were caught in the act be­came fa­mous for their skills as a copy­ist and found a mar­ket in­ter­ested in their re­pro­duc­tions hon­estly. By ac­knowl­edg­ing and sell­ing them as copies, a few have be­come suc­cess­ful and even fa­mous in their own right.

Artist Han van Meegeren be­came fa­mous for cre­at­ing what one es­teemed ex­pert called "the mas­ter­piece of Jo­han­nes Ver­meer of Delft." His forg­eries were also sold to the Nazis, one of which ended up in the col­lec­tion of Re­ichs­marschall Her­mann Göring, for which van Meegeren was al­most pros­e­cuted as a col­lab­o­ra­tor.

VanMeeregen's own [non-forgery) work be­came valu­able and was ac­tu­ally forged by other artists. One forger was his own son Jacques van Meegeren, who had the balls to write cer­tifi­cates of au­then­ti­ca­tion!

Snobs: photo of fake copy of mono version of INTRODUCING THE BEATLES album.

Snobs: photo of fake copy of stereo version of INTRODUCING THE BEATLES album.

In the 1970s, count­less (mil­lions?) fake copies of the first Beat­les al­bum found their way into cut-out bins across Amer­ica, where they could gen­er­ally be had for no more than $2.99. The most record col­lec­tors have to fear from coun­ter­feit­ers is mis­tak­ing these forg­eries for the real thing decades later. But their ex­is­tence is widely known, and books and web­sites provide all the in­for­ma­tion one needs to dif­fer­en­ti­ate real al­bums from fake. (Both the mono and stereo al­bums above are unau­tho­rized re­pro­duc­tions.)

Painters faking their own work

Per­haps the most fa­mous forger is Elmyr de Hory, who claims to have placed more than 1,000 paint­ings in mu­se­ums, gal­leries, and pri­vate col­lec­tions. He was the sub­ject of Clif­ford Irving's book Fake (1969), Or­son Welles's movie F For Fake (1974), and a bi­og­ra­phy by Mark Forgy's bi­og­ra­phy The Forger's Ap­pren­tice (2012). Cu­ri­ously, the mar­ket has seen the ar­rival of forged de Ho­rys since his death in 1976.

Ac­cord­ing to Eu­ro­pean po­lice ex­perts, as much as half the art in cir­cu­la­tion on the in­ter­na­tional mar­ket could be forged and a large pro­por­tion of those forg­eries goes un­der the ham­mer in Lon­don." (In­de­pen­dent)

"It seems like big­ger and stranger art scams are re­vealed each year, from the man who sold more than 200 fake Al­berto Gi­a­cometti stat­ues out of his car in Ger­many to the Los An­ge­les art dealer who com­mis­sioned a fake Pi­casso and sold it for $2 mil­lion." (Busi­ness In­sider)

The feel­ing of be­ing scammed will be fa­mil­iar to al­most any­one who has or­dered wine in a restau­rant.

"Fakes and forg­eries in the art world are the stuff of leg­end, the sub­ject of books, films, and tele­vi­sion se­ries the world over. In real life, they land peo­ple be­hind bars. 2016 brought us many un­wanted things, but it also ap­pears to have been a year when a huge amount of au­then­tic­ity dis­putes took place. The spats took shape from con­tested prove­nance, to painters fak­ing their own work, to a mul­ti­mil­lion dol­lar Old Mas­ters scan­dal." (Art­Net­News) 1

The amount of money that has changed hands over trans­ac­tions of forg­eries in the past 100 years is unknown—certainly say­ing it was in the hun­dreds of mil­lions in 2017 cur­rency is prob­a­bly safe. But for sheer bravado in size and scope, few tales in the world of fine art come close to what has been hap­pen­ing in the world of fine wine . . . 

Snobs: poster for SOUR GRAPES documentary movie.

Poster for the 2016 doc­u­men­tary film Sour Grapes.

Dr Conti and wine snobs

The text that fol­lows (in­dented and in san serif type) is an abridg­ment of "The Great Wine Fraud" by Ed Cum­ming for The Guardian. The orig­i­nal ar­ti­cle is more than 2,000 words in length; my abridg­ment above is less than 700 words. There are plenty of Mr Cumming's words and good rea­sons to click on over to The Guardian and give it a read.

In 2006, the pres­ti­gious wine auc­tion­eer­ing house of Acker Mer­rall & Con­dit named Rudy Kur­ni­awan as the owner of "ar­guably the great­est cel­lar on Earth." In 2012, the FBI ar­rested Kur­ni­awan. Agents found var­i­ous tools and equip­ment used in coun­ter­feit­ing wine, along with Cal­i­for­nia wines that were be­ing pre­pared to be sold as much older—and much more valuable—vintages of Bor­deaux.

On the other end of the Wine Snob con­tin­uüm, there are Charles Shaw wines. Click To Tweet

In be­tween, Kurniawan's re-labeling of lesser wines pro­duced pub­lic auc­tions and pri­vate sales in the tens of mil­lions of dol­lars. He also bought and sold some of the worlds great­est wines, in­clud­ing so much Do­maine de la Romanée-Conti that he be­came known as “Dr Conti” among those at the tippy-top of the wine world.

In 2014, Rudy Kur­ni­awan—whose real name is ap­par­ently Zhen Wang Huang—became the first per­son to be con­victed of wine fraud. He was sen­tenced to ten years in prison.

Snobs: drawing of Rudy Kurniawan from his trial.

How the court­room artist saw Rudy Kur­ni­awan in 2014.

The great wine fraud

The text that fol­lows (in­dented and in san serif type) is an abridg­ment of "The Great Wine Fraud" by Ed Cum­ming for The Guardian. The orig­i­nal ar­ti­cle is more than 2,000 words in length; my abridg­ment be­low is a few more than 500 words. There are plenty of Mr Cumming's words and good rea­sons to click on over to The Guardian and give it a read.

The most ex­pen­sive wines are so rarely drunk, few can claim to be ex­pert on how they taste. On the oc­ca­sions they are opened, it is usu­ally cour­tesy of a gen­er­ous host. It is poor guest­man­ship to lob as­per­sions on any prof­fered bot­tle, let alone one that cost as much as your car. The feel­ing of be­ing scammed will be fa­mil­iar to al­most any­one who has or­dered wine in a restau­rant: Kur­ni­awan sim­ply scaled it up.

A new doc­u­men­tary, Sour Grapes, came about af­ter two di­rec­tors met by chance at Kurniawan’s trial. [Di­rec­tor] Jerry Roth­well was fol­low­ing Lau­rent Pon­sot on the trail of his faked wine. [Di­rec­tor] Reuben At­las thought Kur­ni­awan sounded like a Robin Hood fig­ure, tak­ing only from those who could af­ford to pay.

The [film lets] us see Kur­ni­awan as he must have ap­peared to the world he conned: boy­ish, charm­ing, eva­sive. “Can we put the cork back in the bot­tle,” he jokes at one point. Know­ing how his story ends, it is com­pelling, and very funny.

Like [Reuben] At­las, you cheer along as he toys with his new friends. One group calls it­self the An­gry Men be­cause of the way they feel when they take a good bot­tle to a party and find every­one else has bought plonk. At An­gry Men din­ners, $200,000 might be drunk in a night.

Snobs: photo of bottle of wine from non-existent Romanee Conti.

In an auc­tion by Bagheera Wines held in Geneva in May 2016, "Six lots of vin­tage bot­tles from the myth­i­cal Ro­manée Conti Do­main in Bur­gundy were with­drawn from the multi-million pound auc­tion at the last min­ute. The auc­tion house told The In­de­pen­dent that it would ur­gently ver­ify the au­then­tic­ity of all bot­tles in the sale. If any proved to be sus­pect, their sales would be can­celled."

What people want to believe

Those duped [by Kur­ni­awan] were al­most ex­clu­sively male. These were men show­ing off, in­clud­ing Hol­ly­wood Jef Levy, a red-nosed sunglass-clad pro­ducer of films you won’t have heard of. It’s strik­ing how eas­ily those in the boys’ club were pre­pared to be­lieve in the char­ac­ter of Kurniawan—an in­génue im­mi­grant with plenty of cash, who wanted to be part of their gang.

The ef­fect of the rogues’ gallery is that Kur­ni­awan comes across as a more sym­pa­thetic fig­ure. As with a di­a­mond heist, you root for the plucky con­man rather than the rich vic­tims, and like any great forger, Kur­ni­awan is a skil­ful artist him­self. Part of the rea­son it took so long for the fraud to emerge is that as long as a bot­tle of fake wine is passed from cel­lar to cel­lar, no­body loses out.

We tend to see wine afi­ciona­dos as ef­fete snobs get­ting their just dessert wines.

When we started out I thought: ‘Here’s a guy who’s stick­ing it to rich peo­ple, and good on him,’ ” says At­las. “But as I got to know the peo­ple in­volved, and un­der­stand the process of wine-making, I be­came less sym­pa­thetic. My per­spec­tive changed.”

The in­ves­ti­ga­tors [for Sour Grapes] al­lege that Kurniawan’s real name is Zhen Wang Huang; Rudy Kur­ni­awan is a com­pound of two fa­mous In­done­sian bad­minton play­ers!

Kurniawan’s was the first case of wine fraud to be suc­cess­fully pros­e­cuted in the US. But the gov­ern­ment did not chase the pa­per trail back to In­done­sia. There are signs he was not act­ing alone. Pon­sot be­lieves it would have been im­pos­si­ble for one man to pro­duce so many coun­ter­feit bot­tles, and also that wine fraud is a much big­ger prob­lem than has been ac­knowl­edged. In a re­cent in­ter­view he said he sus­pected 80% of the Bur­gundy al­legedly from be­fore 1980 is coun­ter­feit.

As Sour Grapes di­rec­tor At­las ob­serves above, there is a ten­dency to see many wine afi­ciona­dos as ef­fete, pre­ten­tious snobs get­ting their just dessert wines. But col­lec­tors are col­lec­tors re­gard­less of the ob­ject of their de­sire and the money they have to spend.

Buy­ing an ex­pen­sive bot­tle of Ro­manée Conti Do­main Bur­gundy and never open­ing the bot­tle and drink­ing the wine is not that dif­fer­ent from buy­ing a factory-sealed mono copy of SGT. PEPPER'S LONELY HEARTS CLUB BAND (Capi­tol MAS-2653) and not open­ing the shrinkwrap and play­ing the record . . .

Snobs: photo of interior of Trader Joe's store with marquee for Two Buck Chuck wine.

Charles Shaw wines now sells for $2.99 a bot­tle at Trader Joe's stores every­where, al­though no one is think­ing of re­brand­ing the Charles Shaw wines as Three-Buck Chuck.

Good wine sold for cheap

On the other end of the Wine Snob continuüm—or should I say at the bot­tom of the pyramid—there's Charles Shaw wines. If you live within hail­ing dis­tance of a Trader Joe's, you have prob­a­bly heard about Two-Buck Chuck. The Charles Shaw wines are a bargain-priced wine made from Cal­i­for­nia grapes. They were in­tro­duced by Trader Joe's stores in Cal­i­for­nia at a price of $1.99 per bot­tle, hence the nick­name. 2

For a non-emotional take on this phe­nom­e­non, look no fur­ther than "Two-Buck Chuck the Toast of Napa" by Jerry Hirsch for the Los An­ge­les Times (Sep­tem­ber 26, 2003):

Most cheap wines taste like, well, cheap wine—no mat­ter what the cost.

"Since Trader Joe's opened its first store in Napa, the pri­vately held gro­cer and pri­mary pur­veyor of the Charles Shaw brand has sold nearly 1,200 bot­tles a day of the wine. The fre­netic buy­ing is a tes­ta­ment to the up­start label's mes­mer­iz­ing hold on California's wine in­dus­try.

In­deed, to­day, half a mile down the high­way from the gro­cery store at the Napa Val­ley Mar­riott, lo­cal vint­ners will gather for their an­nual in­dus­try sym­po­sium where one of the main top­ics will be Two-Buck Chuck and how it has trans­formed their busi­ness." 3

For a per­sonal take on the Shaw of­fer­ings, try "Rank­ing Trader Joe's Two-Buck Chuck from Worst to Least Worst" by An­nie Black for Paste (May 18, 2016). Ms Black sums up the sit­u­a­tion right smartly: "Most cheap wines taste like, well, cheap wine—no mat­ter what the cost."

Snobs: photo of a vineyard in Napa Valley.

Enamored of the magic of wine

I lived in St He­lena at the heart of the wine coun­try in Cal­i­for­nia for sev­eral years. It is im­pos­si­ble to live there and not meet lots of peo­ple in­volved with wine: grow­ing the grapes, mak­ing them into wine, and sell­ing that wine to the pub­lic. There were very few snobs among these peo­ple: they all seemed en­am­ored of the magic of the vine and the wine and were usu­ally a plea­sure to be around.

I met guys and gals who had quit to col­lege to take jobs in small re­tail out­lets just for the op­tion of buy­ing cases of wine to taste, to trade, to store away. They were col­lec­tors of a sort—with which I, as a record col­lec­tor, could re­late.

I thought they were a wee bit tetched in the head by the ef­fect of the grapes but when I found that cases of an un­known red pur­chased for $48 could turn into wine that went for $100 a bot­tle in two years, I changed my mind!

Snobs: photo of dust-covered bottles of wine from Burgundy region of France.

FEA­TURED IM­AGE: I found the photo of the dust-covered bot­tles of Bur­gundy wine at the top of this page at the web­site for the Bur­gundy Dis­cov­ery wine tours.


1   For books on this topic, just type "his­tory of art forgery" into Google.

2   Charles F. Shaw was an in­vest­ment banker who fell un­der the spell of the vine, es­pe­cially the one re­spon­si­ble for Beau­jo­lais. In 1974, he moved to Napa Val­ley and started a win­ery mak­ing a rea­son­ably good wine. In 1991, he sold the Charles Shaw la­bel to the Bronco Wine Com­pany, who even­tu­ally res­ur­rected the Shaw la­bel to mar­ket an in­ex­pen­sive ta­ble wine through the Trader Joe's chain of stores.

3   For a look at some of the gen­er­ally un­founded but of­ten funny ru­mors be­hind the wine (no, it had noth­ing to do with corkscrews and 911), try "Why Is Charles Shaw Wine So Cheap?" on the inim­itable Snopes web­site.



Every­one loves to love Steve Mc­Queen (and usu­ally for good rea­son) and every­one likes to trash re­makes, but the 1999 ver­sion of The Thomas Crown Af­fair of the 1968 movie The Thomas Crown Af­fair is a case where the re­make bakes the orig­i­nal. As fine a duo as Mc­Queen and Faye Dun­away were back in the Swing­ing Six­ties, Pierce Bros­nan and Rene Russo are bet­ter. In fact, for fans of Ms Russo, she has never been hot­ter in a movie! Plus, whereas the orig­i­nal story in­volved a sim­ple heist, the makeover in­volves art forgery plus a heist!

We tend to see wine afi­ciona­dos as ef­fete snobs get­ting their just dessert wines. Click To Tweet

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