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

Es­ti­mated reading time is 10 min­utes.

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.

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.

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

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)

“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 . . . 


Conti SourGrapes poster copy 1

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 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.


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


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 world’s 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.


Conti drawing

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 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.


Conti fakeConti copy

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 . . .


Conti TwoBuckChuck1 copy

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):

“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.”


Conti NapaValley sign

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!

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

WineFraud Burgundy bottles

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.


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