The Top 5 Wine Scandals
Recent reports indicate that Italian authorities have seized over 160,000 liters (roughly 220,000 bottles) of counterfeit Rosso and Brunello di Montalcino worth approximately $1.3 million. In honor of what sources are calling “one of the biggest wine frauds ever,” Grape Collective takes a look back at the top five wine scandals of the past three decades.
The Jefferson Bottles
Back in 2005, the Boston Museum of Fine Arts prepared to exhibit a number of 1784 and 1787 vintages of Châteaux Lafite and Branne-Mouton (now Château Mouton-Rothschild) attributed to former President (and oenophile) Thomas Jefferson. But in preparations, they were shocked to find that the bottles’ owner, American businessman and (oft-defrauded) wine collector Bill Koch, could only trace their provenance back to an authentication by British wine critic, writer, and auctioneer Michael Broadbent, MW. So, Koch — who purchased the bottles at auction in 1988 for what would amount to over $1 million today — contacted the Thomas Jefferson Foundation, the governing body of Jefferson’s Monticello estate, who found no history of the bottles in Jefferson’s records. Ultimately, Koch was able to trace all of the bottles to one collector, German wine connoisseur and trader Hardy Rodenstock (née Meinhard Görke). But, by then, it seems to have been too little too late. Despite private investigation by a retired FBI agent and multiple lawsuits (against Rodenstock as well as Christie’s auction house), Koch’s allegations — including that the Jefferson bottle engravings were made with an electric power tool and that nine other bottles in his collection are Rodenstock fakes — have yet to bear fruit.
In the early 2000s, Indonesian wine and art collector Rudy Kurniawan gained the nickname “Dr. Conti” in honor of his affinity for collecting rare and expensive bottles of Burgundy producer Domaine de la Romanée-Conti. In 2006, Kurniawan netted what would amount to $12.4 million and $28.9 million today for two sales of eight (fake) magnums of 1947 Château Lafleur at Acker, Merral & Condit auction house, the latter sale beating the record for largest single sale of wine at auction by more than $10 million. In 2007 and 2008, Kurniawan was foiled by Château Le Pin and Domaine Ponsot, respectively, after he attempted to consign several (fake) magnums of 1982 Le Pin at Christie’s auction house in Los Angeles and several (fake) bottles of 1945 to 1971 Domaine Ponsot. After using his wine and art collection to secure what would amount to over $13.5 million in loans today, Kurniawan was sued by the ubiquitous Bill Koch — who alleged that Kurniawan had knowingly sold him (and other collectors) fake bottles of wine — and defaulted on a $10 million loan from Acker, Merrall & Condit in 2009. Eventually, Kurniawan was arrested at his home in Arcadia, California — where FBI agents found inexpensive bottles of Napa Valley wine with notes indicating they would be passed off as older vintages of Bordeaux as well as corks, stamps, labels, and other counterfeiting tools — charged with fraud, convicted, and sentenced to 10 years imprisonment between 2012 and 2013.
On March 21, 2008, Italian wine journalist Franco Ziliani and American wine critic James Suckling broke the story of an investigation into a number of Brunello di Montalcino producers who had allegedly been secretly (and illegally) mixing other varietals into their Sangiovese bottles. Known in Italian as “Brunellopoli” (in reference to the 1990s Italian political scandal Tangentopoli), the story grew to include 20 firms suspected of commercial fraud after investigators found that millions of liters of Brunello had potentially been cut with other types of wine — in direct violation of the strict Sangiovese-only purity laws of the Consorzio del Vino Brunello, the governing body of the Brunello di Montalcino region. Vineyards were quickly quarantined and hundreds of thousands of bottles seized by investigators as a number of prominent Brunello producers, such as Antinori, Frescobaldi, and Argiano, admitted they were under investigation. While some producers (such as Argiano) chose to decertify their bottles in order to keep them on the market, the U.S. government ultimately moved to block Brunello imports that did not pass laboratory inspection and the Consorzio del Vino Brunello sued Italian newspapers L’espresso and La Repubblica for defamation on the grounds that articles published in the two papers insinuated health risks as a result of the tampering.
In October 2011, French journalists Vincent Pousson and Jacques Berthomeau (and, later, American journalist Jim Budd) broke the story of Spanish event organizer (and Spain’s first Master of Wine) Pancho Campo. He had been charging Spanish wineries almost $26,000 to secure a visit from the official Spanish wine critic of Robert Parker’s Wine Advocate, Dr. Jay Miller. Also known as “Jumillagate” or “Murciagate” (after the area of Spain affected by the controversy), the scandal resulted in the Institute of Masters of Wine (IMW) launching an investigation into whether or not Campo had breached its strict Code of Conduct in December 2011 as well as Robert Parker launching a legal investigation into the events himself. Ultimately, Miller left The Wine Advocate (even though Parker’s investigation later found no evidence of kickbacks for Miller’s visits), returning to wine consulting, lecturing, and retail, while Campo resigned from the IMW on May 3, 2012 (before their investigation could be completed), citing his increased interest in sports and music events as the reason for his departure.
Wine Spectator Award of Excellence
When Wine Spectator announced their annual Award of Excellence winners in 2008, they never expected one of them to be fake. But, at the August 2008 American Association of Wine Economists conference in Portland, Oregon, American author and food and wine critic Robin Goldstein (pictured above) revealed that, in a hoax exposé with the help of his friend Giuliano Stiglitz, he had created a fake Milanese restaurant named Osteria L’Intrepido (Italian for “the fearless tavern,” a play on the name of Goldstein’s publishing company Fearless Critic) by developing a fake website, coming up with a fake wine list (including a number of low-rated Italian wines), and submitting the fake restaurant for the award along with the mandatory $250 entry fee. While Wine Spectator Editor Thomas Matthews has since gone on to defend the magazine’s awarding of Osteria L’Intrepido, Goldstein’s restaurant guides and books have gone on to garner worldwide acclaim.
(Dis)honorable Mention: Austrian Diethylene Glycol
On June 27, 1985, a German wine laboratory performing quality control on wine sold in Germany made a rather puzzling find. An imported Austrian wine (a 1983 Rüster Auslese) contained an artificial sweetener: diethylene glycol, a toxic industrial chemical sometimes used as antifreeze. Immediately, both German and Austrian authorities launched a full-scale investigation, removing affected wines from the market, warning citizens not to consume Austrian wines, and ultimately seizing and destroying 27 million liters (36 million bottles-worth) of Austrian wine as well as arresting and imprisoning dozens of Austrian wine producers. As a result, the reputation of Austrian wine was utterly obliterated, with Austrian wine exports banned by several countries and falling to one-tenth their pre-1985 level the following year. It wasn’t until 2001 that Austrian wine exports were again able to reach their pre-1985 level.