An Imposter For Our Times

It never really goes away. Impostor syndrome. You were sure it would once you grew up. Once you learned the ropes and earned your spurs in your job, once you mastered every metaphor you’d achieve actual mastery, you wouldn’t feel like you were this close to being found out, this close to a psychological edge where you wouldn’t be able to help blurting it out and feeling that much more unburdened now that you no longer had to pretend to be competent, no longer had to pretend to be someone you were not, someone fully formed, fully healed, fully deserving of a job or a salary or the respect of your peers. You would suddenly be on the other side of that yawning, yawing gulf of self-doubt that separated you from what you thought you would be like as a child, calm, decisive, endlessly competent and beloved.

It never really goes away. And life will pound at you how jarringly difficult it is to fake it until the mythical day you finally make it. Life will also show you how horrible its real impostors may have to be, from multiple fake Rockefellers to fake doctors and pillars of their community. Life’s real Tom Ripleys, its most ambitious and successful impostors who successfully carried out prolonged swindles, destroyed the lives and hopes of otherwise innocent people, not literary types created to throw an impostor protagonist’s qualities into relief.

Most of them, at least, except perhaps for an impostor for our times, the wine forger Rudy Kurniawan, whose motivations and backstory to this day can only be supposed but not confirmed. His name itself a sort of forgery, borrowed from an Indonesian badminton champion so as to better allow that ethnic Chinese minority to pass. Both the documentary Sour Grapes and author Peter Hellman’s spellbinding In Vino Veritas: The Rise and Fall of a Wine Forger Extraordinaire leave us tantalized for more about this young man who splashed around a lot of money in Los Angeles and New York in the first decade of this millennium, became a wine connoisseur with an incredibly gifted palate and the toast of the budding internet fora where men engaged in their usual one-upmanship of taste, outlay and consumption, and then flourished as a wine dealer thanks to auction houses only too eager to sell his amazingly rare, provenance-free finds. 

Until, as Hellman describes, the combination of a Burgundy winemaker outraged that someone would counterfeit his wine, a litigious Koch brother seeking revenge for his wasted millions, an oenophile federal prosecutor and a dogged FBI agent succeeded in bringing the first ever wine fraud trial and conviction in United States history. Most of Rudy’s marks, the (mostly) men who paid enormous amounts for rare wine that Rudy had replicated with old bottles and his own carefully concocted mixtures of cheaper wines, could well spare the cash; in the case of Bill Koch, whose clan’s name lives in infamy, we can be forgiven for wishing Rudy had done worse to the bottles. Given Rudy’s habit of tipping restaurant staff extravagantly well (one of his m.o.’s was to order rare vintage wines at restaurants and have the empties shipped back to him after the meal to use in his forgeries) Hellman makes a case that Rudy had a Robin Hood side to him, in that he took money mainly from the very wealthy and dispensed it to their servitors in the new deep-cellared restaurants that had sprung up to serve a class of newly flush men. Along with the auction houses, they all formed part of a flashy impostor ecosystem.

Because I remember the years of that spurious mortgage finance boom well, a boom whose gains were captured almost entirely by the sort of wealthy marks Rudy had hung out with, even if it busted in all of our faces. An impostor boom, whose flaws were writ large on the wall for us all to see, foundations as shifty as Rudy’s own origins. Bill Koch’s investigators suggest that Rudy’s uncles were fugitives who had swindled tens of millions of dollars from Indonesian banks, and that Rudy, somehow, had been helping them launder their money. (How? Rudy was so heavily leveraged that he had double-pledged both his wine and his art collection to secure advances from lenders and from a flashy new auction house that had made its name selling Rudy’s wine during the boom.) Vintner Laurent Ponsot, whose challenge to an auction of fake wines bearing his family’s name caused Rudy’s deception to start unravelling, says no such thing, and began writing a memoir (now changed to a novel) purporting to have Kurniawan’s real backstory. 

The boom busted by mid-2008, around the same time that Rudy’s wines started getting pulled from auctions (he quickly found proxies to consign them for him). Hellman points out that the winebros’ favorite restaurants are no longer around. It had been a miserable prosperity, an impostor’s prosperity, because prosperity it was not, certainly not for the vast majority of people whose quality of life had not improved, and not for those of us on its fringes, pitched with $60,000 beds by The New York Times, acutely conscious, like most of the winebros, of well-remunerated bondage, of being wheels in capitalism’s grinding machine, replaceable as soon as we squeaked or the machine backfired.

An impostor for our time. In the years since Kurniawan’s fall (now in federal prison, he will be deported on release since he had overstayed a 1990s student visa), multiple mysteriously wealthy Far Eastern menswear and menswear media moguls have emerged, no doubt the sort of people Rudy only pretended to be, having assimilated their mannerisms to a T: charming young men in flashy custom clothing, driving a different luxury sports car each time they surface, deflecting with rehearsed smoothness questions about the source of their wealth or about their family…

An impostor, with the truth of an incredible palate, uncannily able to recognize different wines and vintages after only a handful of years in the wine world. And to recreate their tastes convincingly enough to fool others. The sort of esoteric talent that prompts people to say that he could have done wonders if he had used his talents legally… but how? The idea of that sort of opportunity, of the availability of gainful use for any gift, is yet another impostor for our times.

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