A New York wine collector has been convicted of two counts of fraud for selling wine bottles that were purportedly rare and pricey, but which were really cheap wines with fraudulent labels.
The case against Rudy Kurniawan, who posed as a wine collector and expert, followed authorities' discovery of numerous wine labels and bottling equipment in his home.
Wine fraud isn't rare. The fact that it happened in the United States is. Most cases of wine fraud over the decades have occurred largely in Europe.
Among the few U.S. cases were three convictions for grape-switching in the early 1990s, when Zinfandel was in short supply (to make white Zin) and other grapes were sold as Zinfandel.
The schemers in most fraud cases often assume that wine is hard to understand, and they can simply get away with cheating.
It happened in Burgundy in the 1980s. A winemaker by the name of Bernard Grivelet was charged with bottling fine wine in 750-milliliter bottles, but selling larger bottlings of the "same" wine, such as magnums and double-magnums, that contained lower-quality wine.
Grivelet must have figured no one would open a magnum until it had been aged for at least a decade; by that time he'd be long gone. Unfortunately, a wine expert did open a magnum and realized it wasn't what it said on the label. Soon Grivelet wasn't making wine any more.
In the late 1990s, police in Beaune, the capital of France's Burgundy district, arrested 10 persons and charged they had sold some famed wines that actually were blended with cheap wine.
Books have been written about wine frauds over the years, and there's a well-known wine industry joke about this, told to me by an Italian wine merchant:
A successful Italian winemaker has refused to tell anyone the secret of his success. Then one day he falls ill and is forced to bed. His son comes to his side daily, hoping for some word about the family secret to making wine. The father tells the son he will tell him in due time.
As the old winemaker weakens, he summons his son and asks him to bend down, then whispers in his ear, "Si fa anche con uva," which means, "It is made also with grapes."
One wine scandal in the mid-1990s involved the sweetening of wine with a chemical found in anti-freeze.
Shortly after that, three men were arrested in England and charged with bilking hundreds of investors in a scheme to sell purportedly high-grade Champagne to investors, promising them that the wines could be sold at a huge profit late in 1999 when so-called Millennium Champagne was in short supply.
The wines were terrible, and the shortage of Champagne for New Year's Eve 2000 turned out to be one of the great non-events of the century. Investors lost $3 million.
One trick is to take cheap wine that's already bottled, strip off the old label, and replace it with one from a great producer.
This tactic by fraudsters led decades ago to the branding of corks. When a wine waiter hands you the cork he has just pulled, you can verify the wine is from the chateau on the label if the cork has the chateau's name burned into it.
If not, the wine may not be what the wine list says it is, no matter what the label says.