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Wine Fraud: A Primer on the World of Counterfeit Wine

Learn how the fake wine industry has boomed in recent years and the real-life risks oenophiles face with high-end brands.

Three bottles of wine used as evidence in the trial of wine dealer Rudy Kurniawan are displayed in Federal Court on December 19, 2013 in New York. (Photo credit should read STAN HONDA/AFP/Getty Images)

Did you know “plonk” is Brit and Aussie slang for bad wine? Well, a new mini-documentary, called “Corkscrewed: The Art of Fake Wine,” looks at people who replace fancy wine with plonk and sell it for lots of money.

Earlier this week, Brendan spoke with Christine Haughney, the investigative producer of the movie. The conversation kicked off with Christine revealing just how much fake wine there is in the world (hint: it’s A LOT).

In China, one out of every two bottles of high-end wine is fake

Christine Haughney: We know that in the high-end market, there’s still a heck of a lot of wine out there that can be in the hundreds of millions of dollars that’s fake. In places like China, one out of every two bottles is fake.

Brendan Francis Newnam: And we know that how?

Christine Haughney: We know that because we spoke with a French appointed government official. He made several trips kind of investigating the prevalence of fake wine in China. It’s gotten so bad in China that basically some retailers will stay away from all fancy brands of wine because they have too many concerns that they’re actually selling fakes.

Brendan Francis Newnam: I love the idea of a wine detective.

Christine Haughney: Yes! It’s kind of great to talk to these sources about how they have been able to track down fakes wines. We spoke with one guy whose wife figured out from the accents on the bottles that they were fake and not fake.

I mean there’s some like wonderfully bad fake wines out there, where someone told me about one bottle that just said like “Bordeaux,” “Burgundy,” “France,” and “wine” on the label and thought someone in China would buy that.

Brendan Francis Newnam: Those are different regions for people who don’t know. So it’s impossible to be a Bordeaux and a Burgundy.

Christine Haughney: Right, right.

The fake fancy French wines might actually just be Two-Buck Chuck… or worse

Brendan Francis Newnam: So, you were talking about these French fakes. There are a couple types of fraud happening here. Can you talk about the different sorts of things happening?

Christine Haughney: Yes. There’s the very high-end fake wine happening and that is: you take, you know, a bottle of Two-Buck Chuck, and you put a fancier label on it, and sell it for thousands upon thousands of dollars.

And then also one thing that’s happening in China is that you have things that aren’t wine at all. You have things that might be colored water, you might have things that are dangerous. And that’s the area that it’s kind of alarming that wine is kind of treading into. These fake wines that have nothing like wine in the bottle.

Brendan Francis Newnam: That can be like a health hazard.

Christine Haughney: Yeah. There can be kind of long term consequences by having a fake bottle of wine.

A man named Rudy Kurniawan brought wine fraud to the rich masses and made millions

Brendan Francis Newnam: So let’s talk about the character who kind of helped bring this to the world’s attention. Tell me about Rudy Kurniawan and how he kind of cracked into the wine world and what he did.

Christine Haughney: Rudy Kurniawan was this kind of larger than life Indonesian-born student who just had a great bottle of wine, he said, at his father’s birthday dinner in San Francisco. It was actually a bottle of Opus One.

Chateau Lafite-Rothschild wine. (Photo by Cindy Ord/Getty Images for NYCWFF)
Chateau Lafite-Rothschild wine. (Photo by Cindy Ord/Getty Images for NYCWFF)

And he was known for having this incredible palate, and he started having these wine dinners and hosting his new kind of friends for wine, and a lot of the bottles ended up being fake. Like hundreds of millions of dollars being fake.

Brendan Francis Newnam: So he entered this kind of elite wine society and ingratiate he did to himself by saying, “Oh I have this bottle of Château Lafite from a very nice year.” And more often than not, it was fake wine.

Christine Haughney: Yeah. There was a mix of fake and real wine. So you never kind of knew if you’re, if you, he was giving you a fake wine or a real wine. And he definitely had a lot of real wines to kind of get entrance into the club. And he was able to kind of pass himself off very well and he made millions upon millions of dollars from this.

Brendan Francis Newnam: He would sell lots of wine.

Christine Haughney: Yes, he sold, he sold quite a bit of wine through Acker Merrall and Condit — the wine shop on Manhattan’s Upper West Side — and through Christie’s. He was really kind of established in the wine world. He had critics and people who called him out for many years. But he was really at the top of the wine world.

Brendan Francis Newnam: So Rudy is now not serving wine. He’s serving I guess bug juice. Like he’s in prison. What happened to him?

Christine Haughney: Well he kind of made some missteps and he sold enough fake wine that the federal agents showed up at his house in California, and they found he really had like a fake wine-making factory in his home. So they just had more than enough evidence to convict him on this and he is serving his time.

Brendan Francis Newnam: One of the details I found interesting was that there are recipes for how to make a fancy Rothschild wine. It was like a little bit of California wine, a little bit of oxidized old Bordeaux. So in a way, he was trying to approximate the flavors of these classic wines.

Christine Haughney: If you’re that good at mixing wines, why don’t you just make real wine? But he did fabricate the kind of finest Burgundies you could ever purchase, so I guess in that sense there’s more money in that.

If you do the wine crime, you won’t do too much time

Christine Haughney: You don’t spend a lot of prison time for the amount of money you make. So, from the eyes of a criminal, wine fraud is a good way to go. It’s better than drug dealing, you know?

Brendan Francis Newnam: Is it better than hosting a public radio show?

Christine Haughney: [Laughs.] You can make quite a bit of money in selling fake wine. And most of government prosecutors don’t have the resources to go after wine fraud.

Brendan Francis Newnam: What are the odds for someone who you know, goes to the wine store, maybe buys a couple $15 bottles of wine a week that it’s going to fraud?

Christine Haughney: The odds are unlikely that it will be fraud, but that’s not the case in China, and that’s not the case for the future.

Brendan Francis Newnam: So your suggestion is beer?

Christine Haughney: [Laughs.]