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

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 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. 

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 . . . 

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 continuum, 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.

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.

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 ingenue 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 . . .

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 continuum—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.”

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!

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 9/11), 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