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Grape expectations

Rudy Kurniawan was a rock star of the wine world. He had the designer suits and the white leather jackets, the Bentleys and the Ferraris, the enormous villa – and what was believed to be the best-stocked cellar in America. The Indonesian-born collector darted between auction houses in New York and Los Angeles, impressing oenophiles with the sensitivity of his palate, his enthusiasm for the minutiae of the winemaking process and his billionaire social circle.

In 2006, the LA Times described how Kurniawan was single-handedly responsible for the prices of fine wines rocketing. He had a seemingly magical ability to conjure up ultra-rare and unheard-of vintages, and for pumping up excitement in the extravagant top-end of the wine market. The same article lauded his wine collection, which was “estimated at its peak to be more than 50,000 bottles of the most celebrated Bordeaux and Burgundy wines of the last century”.

“If the alleged deception had been taking place for years, it seems probable that many experts mistook mid-range plonk for ultra-expensive rarities”

Yet there was something strange about this most celebrated of cellars: nobody other than its owner ever seemed to see it. That was, at least, until the FBI raided Kurniawan’s home on 8th March, 2012. There they allegedly found thousands of labels, old and new corks, glue, scissors and sealing wax, and rubber stamps bearing the logos of French vineyards. The authorities have alleged that using wine from the Napa Valley, Kurniawan created bogus Burgundies which he sold to unsuspecting collectors for thousands of dollars. He has been charged with running one of the most sophisticated wine counterfeiting operations in living memory. He denies the charges.

By the time of his arrest, Kurniawan’s star wasn’t shining as brightly as it once had. In 2009, billionaire collector Bill Koch launched legal proceedings against him, claiming that the wine guru had knowingly sold him fake bottles. And the previous year Kurniawan had attempted to sell vintage Domaine Ponsot wines from 1945 and 1959 at auction. Laurent Ponsot, the owner of Domaine Ponsot, had attended the sale, and claimed that his winery only started making the Burgundies advertised in Kurniawan’s lot in the 1980s.

If indeed Kurniawan had managed to hoodwink some of the world’s most renowned wine experts, a large part of the con would lie in his fantastic talent for recreating period details – the corks, the labels, the shape and feel of the bottles. Some experts whose reputations have been dented by Kurniawan’s arrest have suggested that he would offer the genuine article in tastings, but sell them something entirely different afterwards in an identical-looking bottle. But if the alleged deception had in fact been taking place for years, it seems probable that many experts mistook mid-range plonk for ultra-expensive rarities.

It would be an embarrassing lapse of judgement for connoisseurs who’ve built their reputations around their finely-tuned palates – but recent studies show that it’s also an understandable one. It seems that the veneer of a high-end wine tasting – the company of cultured palates, the appearance of the bottles and the desire to believe in the quality of the bottle – can overrun the other senses and lead tipplers to believe the cheap wine they are tasting is a fine vintage.

Poor taste

It was the psychologist Frederic Brochet who first identified the senses’ blind spot when it comes to wine. In 2001 Brochet brought together 54 oenology students who had dedicated their academic life to the study of making and tasting wine, and got them to sample a glass of red and a glass of white wine. He carefully noted as the students described in detail the rich tannins and deep fruit of the red versus the crisp, fresh flavours of the white wine. What he didn’t tell them was that the two samples were of the same wine: they both contained an identical white, but a tasteless red dye had been added to one glass. Not one of the 54 elite students noticed that the red wine was in fact white.

Antonio Rangel, an associate professor of economics at the California Institute of Technology, took things further in experimenting with the expectations of experts. He attached them to a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) machine that displays the brain’s activity, and asked them to rate five wines valued at $5, $10, $35, $45, and $90. The wines labelled $5 and $45 both contained the same $5 wine. The wines labelled $10 and $90 both contained the same $10 wine. Again the experts failed to notice the switch and consistently reported that they liked the taste of the $90 bottle better than the $10 one and the $45 bottle (filled with $5 wine) better than the $35 one.

But the results of the fMRI scan went beyond this subjective preference. They showed that a region of the brain called the medial orbitofrontal cortex, or mOFC, showed higher activity when the subjects drank the wines they said were more pleasurable. “Our study shows that the neural encoding of the quality of an experience is actually modulated by a variable such as price, which most people believe is correlated with experienced pleasantness,” says Rangel. The experiment doesn’t reveal whether the subjects truly experienced more pleasure from the wines that they thought were more expensive – although subjectively that was what they reported. But it did show that that the area of their brain that is thought to encode for the pleasantness of the experience was more active when they drank wine they believed had higher prices.

“The brain encodes pleasure because it is useful for learning which activities to repeat and which ones to avoid, and good decision making requires good measures of the quality of an experience,” says Rangel. But the brain is also a noisy environment and “thus, as a way of improving its measurements, it makes sense to add up other sources of information about the experience. In particular, if you are very sure cognitively that an experience is good, perhaps because of previous experiences, it makes sense to incorporate that into your current measurements of pleasure.” Most people believe, usually quite correctly, that price and the quality of a wine are correlated, so it is therefore natural for the brain to factor price into an evaluation of a wine’s flavour.

Rudy Kurniawan, who is pleading not guilty to charges of wine fraud

Ignorance is bliss

It’s easy to snigger at the thought of wine collectors with more money than sense paying hundreds of times over the odds for plonk they took for Pétrus. But fraud plagues the bottom of the market as well as the top.

Raids on 29th March by Havering Council officers in London seized 340 bottles of fake Jacob’s Creek from 19 off-licences across the borough. The fraud was uncovered not by a taste test but by the counterfeiters having spelled ‘Australia’ incorrectly (the bottles were marked ‘Austrlia’). Hundreds of other bottles are suspected to have been sold and consumed without detection. And the problem is on the rise – in the UK alone, the number of seizures of fake alcohol has risen fivefold in three years, from 31 in 2009 to 148 in 2011.

Meanwhile, back in New York, Kurniawan faces four counts of fraud and if he is found guilty, could receive a sentence of up to 100 years. Will the former golden boy of wine manage to disprove the alleged evidence against him and pull off a triumphant return to the inner circle, or will his fall from grace be complete and his magic cellar be exposed as a production line of deception?

But it’s not just Kurniawan’s fate that hangs in the balance. Given the complex relation between brains and taste, expectation and reality and price and pleasure, the wines sitting in multimillionaires’ cellars across the globe will taste very different depending on whether the verdict is guilty or innocent…

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