Rudy breaks the market

How much damage can one person inflict on a large, international market? In the case of Rudy Kurniawan – a tremendous amount. In the early 2000s, this mysterious young man began to corner a certain segment of French rare wine market. After, supposedly, amassing “arguably the greatest cellar on earth”, he began consigning parts of his collection at the world’s most prestigious auctions. At one of these, in New York, Domaine Ponsot 1945 vintage from the Clos Saint-Denis appellation was about to be sold for US$70,000 per bottle. There was just one problem: Laurent Ponsot, Domaine

Rudy Kurniawan turned out to be the biggest wine forger to date, and his story had been extensively coverer by the media, including an excellent documentary. His rare ability to identify sensory characteristics of different wines allowed him to produce high quality counterfeits of prestigious Burgundy wineries, mainly Domain de la Romanée-Conti. Though excellent relationship building skills and outstanding generosity, Rudy was able to create an exclusive network of affluent wine connoisseurs. His extraordinary taste for rare French vintage wines and his know-how gave him credibility within that illustrious society.

Assessing the damage

Rudy’s wine can still be found in cellars of famous collectors, and its worth is widely discussed, with estimates circulating up to US$550 Million. The Grocery Manufacturers Association estimates that food fraud costs globally account for US$10-15 billion a year, which translates to 10% of the commercially sold food market. Wine has been ranked in a top position regarding popularity. The wine market is predicted to grow +9.8% annually over the next three years, from US$323,501 in 2020 to US$428,240 in 2023. Given the rapid growth rate, wine fraud becomes an even more relevant topic for the future.

Five technologies to prevent wine fraud

As the fake wines problem grows, so does demand for new technologies to protect buyers and producers from fraud. Several general approaches show promise, but not without problems:

  • OVD: holograms for labels. These may be attractive on price, but counterfeiters are skilled, and protection offered is limited.
  • DNA Protection: delivers accurate results but requires significant resources to manage, since rigorous and lengthy control documents must be provided.
  • Technology of Chaos / Bubble Codes could allow reliable identity tracking of the bottle but lacks a security system to prevent refill.
  • NFC more cost-intensive than the others, but may offer a safe, convenient solution, as seen in the contactless payments space.
  • Blockchain potentially ground-breaking technology, marred by the cryptocurrency associations. Tough to roll out at scale.

Two comprehensive solutions

These two companies combine different approaches into comprehensive, wine-specific solutions:

  • Bruker is offering a fingerprint technology with DNA protection and NFC identity.
  • Selinko developed anti-refill technology and NFC identity via the technology of chaos.

Laurent Posont, the winemaker from the Rudy Kurniawan case, held a key role in developing new technology with Selinko to prevent wine fraud. He states on the website of his new label tech: ”Of course, my quest for an alliance between history and high technology continues… thanks to the use of new NFC chips, called NFC banking, we will be able to give to the final consumer the opportunity to check if the bottle he holds in his hands is the one that comes from our house.”

The BarrelWise approach

It is still early days for wine authenticity technology. As presented above, a number of methods are competing in this space. We at BarrelWise think that our approach may also be of use. Since our technology enables cost-efficient analysis of wine in every ageing barrel, a capability to “fingerprint” wine, and track its life from grape to bottle would also help to keep fraud in check. At Rudy’s auctions, buyers could not trace the wine back to individual barrels, fermentation tanks or vineyard blocks, and had no way to validate the authenticity of the wine, other than by taste, which proved to be a less-than-perfect approach.

With more and more wineries subscribing to the BarrelWise vision, they will soon have that option.