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Counterfeit wine scandal: who are the real victims?

More than seven months have passed since Rudy Kurniawan became the first person to be convicted of wine fraud in the U.S.

The story first broke in December 2009, when my friends and colleagues Peter Hellman and Mitch Frank began reporting it for Wine Spectator.

(Here's the Rudy Kurniawan entry on Wikipedia.)

It's not entirely clear to me why the story has begun popping up again on a wide variety of media platforms. A few weeks ago, I inadvertently stumbled upon an evening "news" show, on a major broadcast network, that devoted an entire segment to it. And just yesterday, I heard yet another story about it on one of my favorite public radio programs.

My suspicion is that this new "news cycle" on a stale story was borne out of a short Associated Press article on a wine counterfeiting ring in Italy that appeared at the end of May of this year. It was followed by two sensationalist reports, both by major mastheads, that erroneously linked the Italian story to Kurniawan.

Until all hell broke loose this month in Eastern Europe and the Middle East, there were no new major stories for the major mastheads to cover. It's that time of year when the "summertime blues" takes over — the so-called "silly season" — and editors and producers search desperately for stories to report. Ultimately, less-than-newsworthy coverage rises to the surface (the Kurniawan reports are typical of this; the story hasn't been "news" for more than a half of a year).

I'm deeply saddened by this.

Not because I feel bad for Kurniawan. Everyone I know who's ever met the guy says he's a real jerk.

Nor do I feel bad for Bill Koch, the billionaire who crusaded to put Kurniawan behind bars. Koch was featured, btw, in both of the stories (TV and radio) that I mention above.

Koch's one of the richest persons in America and I'm sure he'll recover from the loss, perhaps drowning his sorrows with some old Mersault that I could never afford.

No, the reason why I am saddened by this story is that the real victims are the grape growers and the winemakers. They are victims of the counterfeiters like Kurniawan and they are victims of the unscrupulous "reporters" who continue to beat this story like a dead horse.

It's true that there is a lot of counterfeiting going on on both sides of the Atlantic. It happens all the time in California, France, Italy, and beyond.

There's no doubt in my mind that I've drunk counterfeit wine. I'm not talking about "rare vintages," as they keep saying on the news. No, I can't afford to be swindled the way that Koch was because I will never be able to afford the wines that he likes.

But I'm sure I've drunk wine that wasn't what it purported to be on the label. It didn't hurt me. If it did, I wouldn't have drunk it!

The people hurt by counterfeiting and sensationalist journalism are the honest growers and producers who play by the rules. The people who genuinely want to make a wine that expresses their appellation.

Yes, wine counterfeiting is a problem. But in the bigger scheme of things, counterfeit wine represents just a drop in the wine lake.

It's time for sensationalist "reporters" to stop exploiting stale news stories at the cost of honest, hard-working winemakers.

—Jeremy Parzen
follow Jeremy @DoBianchi