The wine copycats

Wines from the exclusive Rudy Kurniawan collection.

In 2013, Rudy Kurniawan was sentenced to ten years in prison, for fooling collectors and connoisseurs into believing that his basement concoctions were some of the greatest wines ever produced. According to many who met Kurniawan, the man had a seriously good palate. He created wine blends that fooled – not always, but often – some of the world’s most experienced palates. It’s clear he had a gift.

And an outsized appreciation for the good life: Kurniawan used the proceeds from his forgeries on prestige cars, Hermès suits, and lavish hospitality. It was just unfortunate for him that he couldn’t find a legitimate way to earn big money from his obvious wine talent.

Today, there is a way.

The value of taste

Having a “freakishly good palate”, as someone said of Kurniawan, is surprisingly unnecessary for most wine professionals. Being able to identify a wine after just one sip is akin to having perfect pitch – it’s a good party trick, but it has few real world applications. In the past, people with good palates could become wine critics, but the demise of wine columns has closed that route to glory. Wine judges usually don’t get paid, while auctioneers and fine wine merchants rarely earn enough for a car collection.

But a new Colorado-based company, called Replica, suggests a bright future for wine savants. Especially ones with entrepreneurial flair.

Replica is a company that sells copies of popular wines like California’s The Prisoner Red Blend, and Italy’s Santa Margherita Pinot Grigio. They create a sensory profile of the wine, and then add specific components into a cheap base wine, and keep adding until the wine finally matches the chemical profile of the original. Voila! A credible copy has been created, for a fraction of the original’s price.

Such knockoffs are the scourge of the perfume world. Multi-million dollar companies exist to do nothing but take other companies’ fragrances and copy them – for a hefty profit.
But what perfume replicators have discovered is that their best efforts can only recreate 90% of the original perfume, and often far less. What they’re relying on is the fact that customers without trained noses can’t tell the difference.

At least, not immediately. A 2014 consumer report from Australia warned that the smell of a knockoff perfume typically lasts for 30 minutes, rather than the original’s six hours. It would be interesting to see whether Replica’s products can last the distance: Do they still taste authentic by the last glass?

Regardless, the door to knockoff wines has been opened.

The ethics of copying

Counterfeiting is the theft of someone else’s work, reputation and intellectual property. It’s also illegal. So how do knockoff makers get away with it? The answer in perfume is that a scent can’t be patented – it’s only the packaging and marketing that can be trademarked. The situation with wine is less clear.

I asked Lindsey Zahn, an attorney at Lehrman Beverage Law in Virginia, to clarify. While she hadn’t heard of Replica, Zahn noted that, theoretically, “there is no issue in saying the wine tastes similar to a particular grape or style, as long as they’re not claiming the wine is the original,” she said. “They can say it’s comparable to a specific wine style and there is no issue with that. The production methods behind those wines are not necessarily trademarked or patented.” Likewise, winemakers are legally prohibited from claiming an appellation if the wine didn’t originate from there.

The big question is what legal comeback a winery would have if someone began selling copies of their wines. Zahn says that – inside the US at least – producers are prohibited from disparaging their competitors or from misleading consumers. “The actual producer might not like the reference and think it’s disparaging,” she says, and suggests this might be a possible opening for litigation.
So far, however, the deep-pocketed perfume industry hasn’t kept replicas at bay. This has ominous implications for wine: Two or so years after knockoff perfumes first appeared in the US, sales hit $100m. That year, 1986, sales of designer scents plummeted by between 3% and 5%. Knockoffs, whether fully legal or not, are every bit as damaging as counterfeits, not least because they make the originals seem like poor value.

Not that the knockoff merchants care. Perhaps Kurniawan should start planning his post-jail wine future. He can use his prodigious talents to make far better wine replicas than anybody else – and then go back to Ferrari shopping.

This article first appeared in Issue 4, 2016 of Meininger’s Wine Business International