Even at Rudy Kurniawan's coming-out party in September 2003, there were questionable bottles of wine.
A score of Southern California’s biggest grape nuts had gathered at the restaurant Melisse in Santa Monica that Friday for a $4,800-a-head vertical tasting of irresistible rarities provided by Kurniawan: Pétrus in a dozen vintages, reaching as far back as 1921, in magnums.
Although Pétrus is now among the most famous wines in the world, it gained its exalted status relatively recently; before World War II, it was virtually unheard of, and finding large-format bottles that had survived from the twenties bordered on miraculous. Paul Wasserman, the son of prominent Burgundy importer Becky Wasserman, is something like wine royalty, but before this event, the oldest Pétrus he had tasted was from 1975.
Nonetheless, two bottles left him scratching his head. The 1947 lacked the unctuousness of right-bank Bordeaux from that legendary vintage, and the 1961 struck him as “very young.” He briefly entertained the idea of “possible fakes”—’61 Pétrus in magnum has fetched up to $28,440 at auction—and jotted, in his notes on the ’47, “If there’s one bottle I have serious doubts about tonight, this is it.”
But in the rare-wine world, doubts are endemic; murkiness is built into a product that is concealed by tinted glass and banded wooden cases and opaque provenance and the fog of history. At the same time, the whole apparatus of the rare-wine market is about converting doubt into mystique. Most wealthy collectors want to spend big and drink famous labels, not necessarily ask questions or hear the answers. Guests at tastings don’t want to bite the hand that quenches them. Auctioneers may not want to risk losing consignments by nitpicking ambiguous bottles. Winemakers don’t like to talk about counterfeiting, for fear of the taint. Also, one thing not high on the FBI’s list of investigative priorities: billionaires getting snowed by wine forgers. It’s clear to everyone on this rarefied circuit that wine fraud is rampant. It’s also clear not many insiders feel an urgency to do anything about it.
Wasserman ended up convincing himself that the wines must be legitimate. Another guest who had tasted the ’61 many times said this one was “absolutely consistent” with his experience. And there was nothing suspect about the wines’ appearance. The colors were appropriate; the corks, even those that looked young, were plausible (it was standard historical practice for wines to be recorked). As for the hodgepodge of inks and paper types used for the labels, Wasserman wasn’t qualified to judge. But Kurniawan, usually soft-spoken and reserved, held forth with great assurance, in his lightly accented English, about the variable labeling of old Pétrus. As Wasserman told a popular online wine board a few days later, “Rudy has become quite an expert on the subject.”
That Kurniawan had assembled such wines, and such winos, and was considered an expert at all about wine in 2003 was extraordinary, considering that just two years earlier he’d been a newbie. But in the moneyed stratosphere of hyperrare collectible wine, merely opening one’s wallet is often lionized as an act of courage or virtue.
Kurniawan has dated his wine epiphany to 2001, when, celebrating his father’s birthday at a restaurant on Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco, he drank a 1996 Opus One. Twenty-five at the time and living in the Los Angeles suburb of Arcadia, Kurniawan became enthralled, and was soon combing L.A. for the wine, quickly amassing 200 bottles. He started attending weekly tastings at the Red Carpet, a wine store in Glendale. Early the following year, at a charity auction in Paso Robles, he made a stir when, bidding on a hotly contested lot of the cult California Syrah Sine Qua Non, he simply held his paddle aloft until he won.
By the end of 2002, Kurniawan was on a classic trajectory, graduating from California wines to premier cru Bordeaux. Then he moved on, in time-honored fashion, to the apex of connoisseurship: Burgundy. Wine lovers fall hard for Burgundy. The greatest of its wines are considered singular expressions of their terroir, the region’s complexity challenges even the geekiest geek, and the wines are mostly produced in such tiny quantities that bottle-hunting can be obsessive. Allen Meadows, 33-year Burgundy collector, publisher of the Burghound newsletter, and the premier Burgundy critic in the U.S., says, “As much as I know, there’s ten times I don’t know.” Kurniawan took to it with such zeal that, says Meadows, “I’ve seen very few people learn Burgundy so fast.”
Among other things, Kurniawan was a gifted taster, someone with not only a discerning palate but also a prodigious memory—a taste library in his head. He could peg some wines “double-blind,” deducing their identities without knowing in advance that they were even among the group being served. He was soon making a splash in auction rooms, spending an estimated $1 million a month. He “cornered much of the megamarket,” auctioneer John Kapon would later say. Largely because of Kurniawan’s influence, old-wine prices rose dramatically. In 2002, a bottle of 1945 DRC Romanée-Conti sold for $2,600. Last year, one went for $124,000.