A Vintage Crime

In the latest issue of Vanity Fair, Michael Steinberger writes a fascinating story about Rudy Kurniawan, a 31-year-old Indonesian transplant living in the United States and producing counterfeit wine. “A Vintage Crime” is a story of a man who sold $35 million worth of wine in 2006, yet just a few months later was begging for loans. A slow rise but a strong fall, as he now faces up to 80 years in jail.

A bit of background:

Beginning in the early 2000s, demand and prices for the rarest wines shot up rapidly, as did the potential payoff from selling fakes. In 2000, wine auctions worldwide grossed $92 million; by last year, that figure had quintupled, to $478 million. The buying frenzy was driven in large part by young collectors in the United States. In contrast to the more buttoned-down Thurston Howell types who had once dominated the auction scene, these new players were distinguished by their insatiable acquisitiveness and eagerness to flaunt their trophy bottles.

No one moved the market more than a twentysomething West Coast collector named Rudy Kurniawan. He first surfaced on the wine scene in the early 2000s. He was reportedly the scion of a wealthy ethnic-Chinese family from Indonesia. In an interview with the Los Angeles Times, in 2006, he explained that Kurniawan was an Indonesian surname his late father had given him to protect his identity. He said that his family had business interests in Indonesia and China, but refused to elaborate.

How Kurwinian’s forgery binge began: by getting the empty bottles of the super-expensive wine bottles:

According to John Kapon, he and Kurniawan met at a wine dinner in Los Angeles. In October 2004, they and some acquaintances went on a four-day binge at Cru that became an emblematic moment for the brash new wine culture that had taken hold. By the end of the last evening, the group had consumed a murderers’ row of legendary wines—1945 Mouton Rothschild, 1961 Jaboulet Hermitage La Chapelle, 1971 La Tâche, 1964 Romanée-Conti, 1978 Guigal Côte-Rôtie La Mouline—and racked up a total tab that one participant said was more than $250,000. Kurniawan paid for the whole thing with his American Express Black Card. He also made a curious request of Cru’s staff: he asked that the restaurant send him all of the empty bottles. He made the same request on subsequent visits to Cru, and between 2004 and 2006 the restaurant sent him box after box of empty bottles.

On Kurniawan’s eccentricities:

He often slept until the afternoon and was maddeningly disorganized, habitually arriving late for engagements and seldom paying bills on time. He also had eccentricities: Wilfred Jaeger, a Bay Area wine collector, says that Kurniawan had a habit of falling asleep at tastings; he would suddenly nod off for 20 or 30 minutes before waking up and resuming drinking. Kurniawan’s mother lived with him in Arcadia, and he sometimes brought her to tastings.

Upon his capture:

In addition to thousands of fake labels for wines such as Romanée-Conti, there were dozens of rubber stamps marked with vintages and winery names; a gadget for inserting corks into bottles; California wines whose labels bore handwritten notes suggesting that they would be passed off as Bordeaux; and dozens of bottles in various stages of being converted to counterfeits.

A thoroughly engrossing read. If anything, this story reinforced my belief in how fickle the rare-wine market truly is.

Starbucks and the European Coffee Culture

This New York Times piece illuminates the struggles of Starbucks in Europe, particularly in France:

After eight years spent setting up 63 French Starbucks stores, the company has never turned a profit in France. And even in the parts of Europe where the company does make money, sales and profit growth lag far behind results in the Americas and Asia.

The reason Starbucks is struggling in Europe:

While a New Yorker might grab a coffee to go — carry-out orders are one of the company’s biggest money makers — French friends tend to sit when they sip. So Starbucks is having to invest huge amounts to give its stores in France additional seating space, along with other renovations.

On innovations Starbucks is undertaking in other European countries:

In London, an experiment is under way to take customers’ names with their orders and then address them by name when filling it. Participating patrons get a free coffee, but many others have lit up Twitter with complaints about bogus, American-style chumminess.

Other changes in the way baristas operate — they now keep milk within arms’ reach of the steamer, for instance — are meant to overcome the Continental curse of slow service.

The most visible innovations, though, involve “concept” stores designed to make a Starbucks feel more like a trendy neighborhood shop. Last month in Amsterdam, the company’s chief executive, Howard Schultz, cut the ribbon on a striking space with local woods and avant-garde architecture, including a stage for poetry readings.

My advice? If you go to Europe, head to the local coffee shops. Why pay for something that you can experience in the United States?

Why French Parents are Superior

Pamela Druckerman is an American mother living in Paris with her British husband and two kids. In her book, Bringing Up Bébé: One American Mother Discovers the Wisdom of French Parenting, she offers her thoughts on parenting and comparing how French and Americans parents differ in their techniques and temperaments. The Wall Street Journal has a great excerpt, citing why French parents are superior to American parents:

The French, I found, seem to have a whole different framework for raising kids. When I asked French parents how they disciplined their children, it took them a few beats just to understand what I meant. “Ah, you mean how do we educate them?” they asked. “Discipline,” I soon realized, is a narrow, seldom-used notion that deals with punishment. Whereas “educating” (which has nothing to do with school) is something they imagined themselves to be doing all the time.

One of the keys to this education is the simple act of learning how to wait. It is why the French babies I meet mostly sleep through the night from two or three months old. Their parents don’t pick them up the second they start crying, allowing the babies to learn how to fall back asleep. It is also why French toddlers will sit happily at a restaurant. Rather than snacking all day like American children, they mostly have to wait until mealtime to eat. (French kids consistently have three meals a day and one snack around 4 p.m.)

The author’s impression of the way the French perceive American kids and parents:

[M]ost French descriptions of American kids include this phrase “n’importe quoi,” meaning “whatever” or “anything they like.” It suggests that the American kids don’t have firm boundaries, that their parents lack authority, and that anything goes. It’s the antithesis of the French ideal of thecadre, or frame, that French parents often talk about. Cadre means that kids have very firm limits about certain things—that’s the frame—and that the parents strictly enforce these. But inside the cadre, French parents entrust their kids with quite a lot of freedom and autonomy.

One final point, according to the article: when comparing beliefs of college-educated mothers in the U.S. and France, the American moms said that encouraging one’s child to play alone was of average importance. But the French moms said it was very important. Being alone forces kids to find creative ways to entertain themselves, an essential skill in deferred gratification.

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See also: Why Chinese Mothers are Superior.

Comparing French and Germany Identity

Francis Fukuyama writes how French and German identities differ:

French national identity is very much built around French language. I always found very impressive that Léopold Senghor, the Senegalese poet, was admitted to the Académie française back in the 1940’s, something that is indicative of the way French see their identity. If you spoke French and if you could write beautiful poetry in French that qualified you for the Académie française. Therefore, that republican sense of identity has underlined French citizenship.

The German case is very different. German national identity evolved very differently from France. Partly due to the fact that the Germans were scattered all over Central and Eastern Europe, the process of German unification required definition of Germanness in ethnic terms. So legally their citizenship law was based on the legal principle of jus sanguinis. You become a citizen not if you are born on German territory, but rather depending on whether you have a German mother. Up until the year 2000, if you were an ethnic German coming from Russia, you could get citizenship far more easily than if you were a 2nd or 3rd generation Turk that had grown up in Germany, spoke perfect German and did not speak Turkish at all. Germans have changed their practice but the cultural meaning of saying I am German is still very different from the cultural meaning of saying I am French. It has a connotation that is more deeply rooted in blood. This means that when Angela Merkel says that multiculturalism has failed in Germany, I think she is only half right. She would be quite wrong to describe that failure one-sidedly as an unwillingness of Muslim immigrants and their children to want to integrate into German society. Part of the failure of integration comes from the side of the German society as well.

I want to say that the majority of the world culture are similar to that of Germany, but I’m just speculating. I’m not certain if there is hard evidence for this question of defining identity.

The Great Hamster of Alsace and France’s Folly

The Court of Justice in Luxembourg, the European Union’s highest court, ruled Thursday that France had failed to protect the Great Hamster of Alsace, sometimes known as the European hamster, the last wild hamster species in Western Europe.

This from a short (but awesome) New York Times piece on why France is being punished.

So that’s your trivia of the week:

The Great Hamster, which can grow up to 10 inches long, has a brown-and-white face, white paws and a black belly. There are thought to be about 800 left in France, with burrows in Alsace along the Rhine. That is an improvement: the number had dropped to fewer than 200 four years ago, according to figures from the European Commission, which brought the lawsuit in 2009.

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Hat tip: Michelle Legro.