US wine dealer who made $1.3m by selling ‘vintage’ stock made in kitchen facing up to 40 years in prison

Renowned seller made fortune from bogus bottles sold to rich American collectors

Ian Johnston@montaukian
Thursday 19 December 2013 20:15
A bin of corks used as evidence in the trial of wine dealer Rudy Kurniawan
A bin of corks used as evidence in the trial of wine dealer Rudy Kurniawan

He was once the toast of the town, a wine dealer who became the “stuff of legends” because of an almost magical ability to procure the world’s finest vintages for the rich and famous.

But various well-heeled clients will now be spluttering into their Burgundy after it emerged that much of the wine that 37-year-old Rudy Kurniawan sold them was fake, and concocted in his kitchen in California.

The magic was nothing more than “smoke and mirrors”, a prosecutor told his fraud trial this week in New York.

It was a scam that lasted for eight years and made Kurniawan at least $1.3m (£794,000), according to the prosecution, although some witnesses claimed they paid him more.

Billionaire entrepreneur, yachtsman and wine investor Bill Koch told the court he alone had paid the Indonesian-born dealer some $2.1m for 219 fake bottles. He has also hired an expert to try to work out just how many of the 43,000 bottles of wine he owns are counterfeit.

Meanwhile, Kurniawan, of Arcadia, California, faces a heavy price for his audacious fraud – up to 40 years in prison.

It does not appear that the taste of his wine gave Kurniawan away, even though he mixed some fine wines with cheaper ones.

Instead, collectors became suspicious when they noticed some labels had spelling errors or were for vintages that did not actually exist for the date given on the bottle.

Michael Egan, the expert hired by Mr Koch, testified that 19,000 counterfeit labels of 27 of the world’s best wines had been found at Kurniawan’s house. “There’s going to be a lot of wines to be cleaned up,” Mr Egan said, according to the Los Angeles Times.

“The whole thing about these great wines is that they’re meant to be historical artifacts. Every time you open one, it’s less of a dwindling supply,” Mr Egan said.

Mr Koch said Kurniawan was a “clever counterfeiter” who “made some stupid mistakes”. “For example, he sold a rare French wine supposedly from 1928, which was six years before that particular wine was ever bottled,” he said.

In his closing arguments, assistant US Attorney Joseph Facciponti said that Kurniawan’s sales had become “the stuff of legends”. “For a while, his magic show worked,” Mr Facciponti told the jury, the Associated Press reported. “The magic seller wasn’t magic at all, but just a bunch of smoke and mirrors.”

Prosecutors said Kurniawan spent his money on luxury cars, designer clothing and fine food and drink. He had been ordered to leave the US in 2003, but had not left or been deported, they added.

Defence lawyer Jerome Mooney insisted Kurniawan had simply been trying to please his wealthy clients. “He was just showing off. He wanted to be part of the club,” Mr Mooney said. “Did he do something he should not have done? Probably. He re-corked. He reconditioned wines. But he didn’t set out to defraud anyone.”

Mr Mooney added that Kurniawan will have spent two years in prison on remand by April, when he is due to be sentenced. “I think that’s enough,” he said.

Laurent Ponsot, of leading Burgundy producer Domaine Ponsot, said Kurniawan had “played a game” and lost.

But while Mr Ponsot declared himself “satisfied” with the legal proceedings, he was saddened by the scam’s wider implications. “Wine is a kind of element made by nature to bring people together and make people happy,” he said. “I’m not happy because… the wine has been dirtied.”

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