Who is Don Cornwell? Trawling the Twittersphere brings no results about the man, but search for the culprits Don Cornwell is striving to out – the Rudy Kurniawans of the world – and you’ll find many a tweet. It’s much the same elsewhere on the Inter webs. The net is chock full of the dastardly deeds of wine fraudster millionaires and the auction houses that (perhaps unwittingly, though at times surely turning a blind eye) sell the wine to unwitting buyers with deep pockets. However, very little is said about the people working against this ongoing and seemingly ever-expanding fraud. People like Don Cornwell. It’s a downright chore just to find a decent picture of the man who has outed fraudulent auction lots, and on more than one occasion, has been to court about wine.
Having grown up in Denver, Colorado and graduating from University of Virginia’s law school, he is an attorney based in Los Angeles, and quite a respected one at that (he has a peer rating of 5/5.0 on Martindale-Hubbell® Peer Review Ratings). To the wine world, though, he is known as a crackerjack wine sleuth, knee-deep in the world of counterfeit wine. So persistent that he has been called “a total bull dog”. A Burgundy-expert with over 30 years experience and possessing a true lawyer’s tenacity, he dilligently researches suspicious wine lots, and posts his findings on the non-descript, yet world’s fastest growing, Wine Berserkers wine forum where he and other oenophiles discuss wine counterfeiting in a discussion over 120 pages deep as of this writing.
What’s surprising, at least to me as a collector of sports cards for over 30 years, is how poorly the bottles are counterfeited. I’ve personally run into a counterfeit Wayne Gretzky rookie card or two in my time, masterfully done except for a couple tell-tale signs. But with these wines, the sales of which are in the millions of dollars, such basic errors as simple spelling mistakes are commonplace. Other equally common red flags are the condition of capsules when compared with the condition of the label on that very same bottle, the wrong number of digits on bottle numbers, and missing accents on wine names. I mean, who is doing this? Simpletons? Are the rich wine drinkers - and even worse, the wine auction houses – so daft that it’s this easy to pull the wool over their eyes. Or is the money involved so precious to some and so insignificant to others that they don’t care?
What distances Cornwell’s work from most of our daily wine lives is that the wines Cornwell deals with are at such ridiculous prices that most of us wine lovers will never swim in those shark-infested waters. Consequently, all this drama just makes for nothing more than intriguing story or a conversation with your fellow wine drinkers at the office water cooler.
But what is happening, and what oenophiles like him are railing against, is smearing something we as wine lovers hold so dear – a sense of purity that is wine. Astonished by it and disgusted by it, he did something about it. And when he was ignored, he did even more. And he let us all know about it. He helped the FBI bring down one of the most notorious wine counterfeiters in America. With the help of New York-based lawyer Don Barzelay and other oenophiles, Cornwell was able to bring down Rudy Kurniawan, the most notorious wine counterfeiter of the last few years if not decades.
Even if counterfeiting continues, a bulk of it having moved to China in recent years, And even though Cornwell says of the results that “it’s a start”, and laments that so many of Kurniawan’s fake bottles still remain at large, Don Barzelay says “There is now reasonable skepticism out there.” Don Cornwell’s work made the wine world perk up. And for that, we have to know him. For that, the Colorado kid is a hero uncorked.
With one chapter of the adventure over, Cornwell and his posse at Wine Berserkers are unihindered by geogrphical boundaries and continue to seek out potentially fraudulent wine lots at auctions across the globe. Let us wait and see what is the next breakthrough, and let’s let that counterfeiter in China fidget nervously, knowing that there is someone out there looking for him.