Somebody should give Rudy Kurniawan a job blending wine. You’ll have to wait till 2024, when he gets out of his California jail and is deported back to Indonesia, but by then he will have thought long and hard about how to produce even better wines than his past efforts.
Which, on anybody’s scale, were admirable indeed.
Rudy – real name Zhen Wang Huang, is a master blender – perhaps the most successful newcomer to the art. He is at least the most famous. Having bought about US$40 million of rare and old wines at auction, some of which he drank, much of which he sold on, he soon worked out how to fake very old French classics to fool the millionaire flakes who measured their success by the value of the ancient rarities they struggled to procure. And, sometimes, even drink.
He sold US$24.7 million worth at one auction in 2006.
It was Rudy’s over-confident and ill-researched marketing that tripped him up, not his skill at his kitchen blending bench. He was stung when he sold wine claiming vintages much older than the company he attributed on his counterfeit labels, and for using large-format bottles that weren’t used in the venerable years he put on his otherwise convincingly scratched and faded livery.
You can see one version of Rudy’s story in the documentary Sour Grapes.
My first encounter with shady wine stuff was at Len Evans’ Rothbury winery in the early ’80, when I witnessed the delivery of enough essence of oak chips to make a great volume of Chardonnay taste a bit like it was barrel-aged. Such essence was and is illegal in wine. I was fascinated that it wasn’t labelled “essence of fine French oak” but “essence of oak chips”. Ew.
That was during the first tasting I’d organised in the Hunter Valley. I was in the lab taking a break, while in the next room, Len, James Halliday, and other great Hunter winemaking gentlemen discussed a bench loaded with Semillon with the young Michael Hill Smith, unaware of the delivery being made and the fact that yours truly, the fresh young editor of Winestate, was signing the delivery chit.
Perhaps overwhelmed by the heaviness of those esteemed blokes, and the mighty Evans they revered, the young Whitey talked about the delivery on later occasions. I had a very good witness, but stood guilty of not reporting it at the time, as nobody else in the wine industry seemed to care much. Export was not so important then.
The next major incident I walked into was during my investigation of a possible apple-juice substitution racket a few years later in 1989. By then, I had learned to care. A wine tanker driver showed me his log book in the top pub at Truro. He had fastidiously recorded deliveries, to some very famous wineries indeed, of apple juice from a hail-damaged Victorian crop. On the pop charts, a new thing called Sauvignon blanc looked as if it was overtaking the horrid Chardonnay of the day, and some suspected that in lieu of having actual vineyards planted with Savvy-b, they could emulate it with some green apple juice.
Which they probably could with some tweaking and water.
I called George Mackie, boss of the governing body, the Australian Wine and Brandy Corporation, and warned him of this scam. To test for apple juice inclusion, the vast numbers of wines they secretly bought retail to analyse were checked for sorbitol, a sweetening moisturising soluble powder which occurs naturally to a small degree in apples, but never in grapes.
Eventually George called to say they’d found sorbitol in six of Murray Tyrrell’s wines, and were proceeding against him. Tyrrell’s Pty Ltd was fined $120 in its local Cessnock courthouse and withdrew and destroyed a vast amount of wine from the international marketplace. It claimed a $700,000 export loss.
Lot of money in those days.
A decade later I was sent an email from a closed class-only University of Davis California web forum, in which two visiting students claimed Kingston Estate, where they’d done vintage, had added silver nitrate and suphuric acid to wine tanks. Both of these are illegal in wine. They also claimed pure ethanol was added, along with oenocyanin tannin to make pale wines red.
Once again, I called the Wine and Brandy Corporation and warned its new boss, Sam Tolley, that I would be reporting this in The Advertiser. I also called the Kingston managing director Bill Moularadellis to advise him he’d be on the front of the morning paper and offer him the opportunity to comment, which he did. Kingston’s export licence was suspended while investigations proceeded; wine was removed from shelves in the UK; Bill co-operated dutifully with the process. I have never seen the outcome of the investigation reported.
The minute that story hit the stands there was a mighty flurry of clean-ups in wineries all over Australia. The general feeling at the big end was that Bill, like Murray, had been made a scapegoat and that while both had broken the law, the wine was not dangerous to health.
My name was more on the nose than ever.
It didn’t seem to be all that long before Kingston’s licence was reinstated and Bill was appointed to the board of Wine Australia, the new version of the old Wine and Brandy Corporation.
Things have been fairly quiet on the Australian wine police front since then, perhaps because in both instances the authorities used their punishments as proof of the efficacy of Australia wine regulations. They did their job; nobody died. They did, and would continue to protect the marketplace – particularly the international one – from such scandal.
What fascinates me is that while it’s hard to imagine an industry as large, as troubled, and involving so many people as Australian wine production, those busted weren’t engaging in clever and extremely lucrative blending of wine to emulate greatness, but were simply adding chemicals.
In Murray Tyrrell’s case, he denied adding apple juice, but admitted readily to adding sorbitol, a sweetening, viscous agent used commonly to keep tobacco moist and ball point ink runny. It is also the principal efficacious ingredient in enemas. Murray had been on the New South Wales committee which decided on the permitted additives list, yet he pleaded guilty to the illegal sorbitol additions.
He seemed to think that adding sorbitol was better than apple juice.
“All these things they’re saying about me are completely unfalse,” he told me.
At about the same time, he also told a gathering of wine writers that he’d admitted to Premier Neville Wran that local pollution was so bad the grapes wouldn’t ripen so he, and others, had been forced to chaptalise their wines, or add sugar, which was illegal.
Not one winery, just by the way, was ever convicted of substituting apple juice for wine. Neither did I ever see a bottle or bladder admitting to the inclusion of apple juice.
I’d love to have a play with a bucket of mains water, some sorbitol (to add viscosity, mouthfeel and the illusion of sweetness), some essence of oak chips (to emulate barrels) and some oenocyanin for colour. I’m sure I could find some cheap bulk pomegranate juice, blackcurrant essence, cherry and/or beetroot from inferior or damaged crops to use sparingly for the elusive fruit flavour, a splash of ethanol and bingo! A bargain grape-free red for the discount bins!
But by Bacchus and Pan, I’d much rather play with some great old Domaine de la Romanée-Conti Burgundy or ancient Petrus, extending them with cheaper local stuff I’d stewed, exposed to microwaves or low frequencies to emulate age, maybe some fine seriously old balsamic, and make a bloody beautiful grape wine that tastes fine enough to pull 10 or 20-odd million from the cognoscenti at auction.
Without any illegal chemicals.
We need great blenders like Rudy, and much better marketers to work out how to honestly package and sell the superior product.
Call it non-vintage, like the majority of the expensive sparkling wine made in Champagne.
There’s obviously a market out there.
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