The Madeleine Brand Show for June 19, 2012

The great wine caper uncorked

FRANCK FIFE/Getty Images

Bottles of wine displayed in the restaurant of the luxury hotel "Hotel du Palais" in Biarritz, Southwestern France.

It might be the biggest case of fraud ever ... or at least the biggest case of wine fraud.

When it comes to wine, prices run the gamut. There's Two Buck Chuck. There's the bottle of Dom Perignon Rosé that sold for $42,000 at an auction in 2008. Serious wine collectors are driving a multi-million dollar market for rare vintages.

Like all luxury products, fine wine is ripe for counterfeiting. One Southern California wine dealer is accused of running one of the world's biggest wine scams ever, defrauding millions of dollars from top collectors.

Michael Steinberger recently wrote about fraudulent wine scam that Rudy Kurniawan is suspected of running in the current issue of Vanity Fair. Prosecutors allege Kurniawan faked vintage wines in a lab at his Arcadia home and stuck counterfeit labels on bottles.

"There are a lot of similarities to the Bernie Madoff story. In fact, a lot of people have said Kurniawan is the Bernie Madoff of wine. All it takes is a couple of influential people to say 'Hey, this guy is ok' or his stuff is legit. He won before over with his generosity and tasting acumen, and it took off from there," Steinberger said. "Kurniawan was hanging around some of the richest people in the world. He dressed in a flashy way that made an instant impression on people. He traveled by private jet. He just spent incredible amounts of money."

Though Kurniawan was selling counterfeit wines to some of the world's biggest wine collectors, no one was suspicious of the wines he sold. "The thing about these rare expensive wines ... [collectors] are not just financially invested in them, they're emotionally invested in them. You buy a bottle of wine, you so badly want to believe it's legitimate. The palate is a fickle instrument, the mind's very powerful. If you want to believe, you can convince yourself [a wine is] legit, even if it really doesn't taste the way it should."

Kurniawan was recently extradited to New York where federal charges were filed against him, and is currently jailed in Brooklyn. It's unknown how much total money Kurniawan was able to receive before being caught. "He sold huge quantities of wine. In 2006, he sold $35 million worth of wine. This could be the biggest case of wine fraud we've ever seen," Steinberger said.

Guest:

Michael Steinberger, writer for Vanity Fair.


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