Fraud in the wine business


A few weeks ago, wine fraudster Rudy Kurnaiwan was sentenced to 10 years in prison and fined $20 million, according to The New York Times. The court also required him to pay more than $24 million in restitution to the victims of his elaborate wine forgery scheme. Once his prison sentence has been completed, Kurnaiwan will also be deported to his native Indonesia. All things considered, this seems a fair verdict to us.

In the rarified patrician world of fine-wine collecting, where a single bottle can cost tens of thousands of dollars, Kurnaiwan was admired for his impeccable palate and extensive collection. Indeed, Bloomberg Markets once wrote that he owned “arguably the greatest cellar on Earth.” He ostentatiously bought, sold and opened some of the most admired and expensive wines in the world, and then eventually became a supplier to other collectors. But he turned out to be a crook.

For all we know, he might have had a much longer and more lucrative career in fraud had he selected some other market of goods. As it happens, however, enough of those who spend this kind of money on wine actually do drink such luxury goods, and share them with others of their ilk, and so many of his would-be suckers know how these wines are actually supposed to taste.

What’s more, those who can afford to spend such sums on drink are also, by and large, smart enough to do their homework and check on both the product, and the supplier. Kurnaiwan’s bogus blends ultimately failed to fool, and eventually the authorities had sufficient cause to look into his activities. A raid of his home uncovered an extensive counterfeiting operation, including thousands of fake labels.

In the kosher wine world – for better or worse – there is not yet any such rarefied market for collectible wines, and anyway there are no wines for such a market. At least, not yet. As we contemplate all this, we savor the very floral Barkan Assemblage Tzafit 2010 ($35), a blend of marselan, caladoc, pinotage and carignan that has a lovely blend of dark fruit, savory spices, raspberry, anise and tobacco flavors throughout a longish finish.
Spirit-wise, we thought we’d turn our thoughts back to Ireland for a change. Back when one of us had the good fortune to visit Ireland and tour distilleries there in 2011, the landscape was small, fairly easy and very straightforward. There were only three big whiskey distilleries in all of Ireland (including Northern Ireland): Bushmills, Midleton, and Cooley (a fourth, Kilbeggan, was Cooley’s small experimental branch – and made for a fabulous visit). Exciting changes are afoot, however, and by the end of next year there will likely be more than a dozen Irish whiskey distilleries in operation.

Whiskey is booming across the board, and Irish whiskey seems to have enjoyed the most growth so far. In the United States alone, for example, Irish whiskey generated $415 million in revenue in 2012, up more than 460 percent since 2002 (according to the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States). The Jameson brand, with more than 70 percent market share, shipped more than 4 million cases in 2012 (up from just 466,000 cases in 1988).

Will there be a robust market to sustain all of this new whiskey production, especially in light of the global whiskey boom and expansion? Beats us, but we certainly hope so. Exactly how it will all shake out remains unclear, but here is a snapshot of the field.
Midleton Distillery in County Cork, which produces Jameson and Redbreast among others, doubled its capacity in 2013 and transitioned the master distiller position from the legendary but retired Barry Crockett to Brian Nation. The excellence is likely to continue.

Bushmills in Northern Ireland has been in a bit of stasis of late, with nothing new released or announced for some time already. The whiskey remains good and plentiful though, so no complaints here.

All during the 2000s the Cooley Distillery, founded by the great John Teeling in 1988, was busy earning awards and wide critical acclaim with brilliant whiskey. At the same time, Cooley was fueling independent Irish-whiskey-brand growth and development by providing whiskey to many non-distiller producers (those who branded and packaged whiskey that was sourced from one of the big three producers). Then Teeling sold the company to Beam, who switched to a more traditional volume sales approach. Cooley is now just one distillery in the rebranded Kilbeggan Distilling Company.

The small but wonderful Kilbeggan Distillery, a very old distillery that was revitalized and relaunched in 2007 by Cooley, has been made the official home of the Kilbeggan Distilling Company by Beam. So now all of the old Cooley production is part of the Kilbeggan operation – since a small and historic site is a better marketing cover/spiritual home than a modern, industrial, large capacity distillery. So long as Beam, now owned by Suntory, continues to maintain quality – and we’ve very high expectations – then all is well and, indeed, promising.

Meanwhile in County Kerry, in the South-West Region of Ireland, part of the province of Munster, the Dingle Distillery was founded in 2012. At present only gin and vodka have been brought to market, but its first whiskey is quietly maturing in the warehouse and is expected to be released in 2018. By all accounts the gin is excellent, but we’ve not yet had the chance to taste – alas.

In Northern Ireland, in County Down in the province of Ulster, the Echlinville Distillery began production last year – the whiskey is maturing in a warehouse. Earlier this year, they bought Dunville’s, a defunct but well-known Belfast whiskey brand, their other brand is the jokey “Feckin Irish Whiskey,” which continues to sell well here in the United States. They have meanwhile launched the Dunville’s brand with some old sourced blended whisky (we presume from Cooley).

The Carlow Brewing Company (aka “O’Hara’s Brewery”) has been distilling since November 2012 under the direction of a joint venture with Alltech, a global biotech company. There is no official or proper name for the distillery company yet. It was recently announced that the operations would be moved to Dublin. We’ve no idea when this whiskey will be released, but Alltech’s U.S. whiskey company, the Lexington Brewing and Distilling Company, has been doing some very interesting stuff at its Town Branch Distillery in Lexington, Ky.

William Grant and Sons bought the Tullamore Dew brand from Midleton a couple of years ago, and started a new distillery back in its hometown of Tullamore. Production has not yet started, but they are close.

We toast all this Irish whiskey progress with a dram of:

Tullamore D.E.W. Irish Whiskey (40 percent abv; $24): this well-made, light, medium-sweet, slightly hot finishing, subtle blend offers fruit (apples and pears) and citrus notes (lemons and oranges), vanilla, honey, a little oak, light floral aromas, with characteristic Irish whiskey oiliness and a final, gently drying, kiss of sweet chocolate and fruit (peaches?) on the fairly hot finish. Light and uncomplicated, but very enjoyable and (oh so) easy to drink. L’Chaim!

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