Twenty months after his arrest by the FBI, accused wine counterfeiter Rudy Kurniawan will finally go on trial Monday, Dec. 9, in a Lower Manhattan federal courtroom. For federal prosecutors, the case marks a first: Never before has the U.S. government tried a defendant for counterfeiting wine. Kurniawan, 37, an Indonesian citizen of Chinese ethnicity, is also charged with defrauding a finance company. If convicted, he faces up to 20 years in prison on each count, as well as potential fines.
In just a few years, beginning around 2002, Kurniawan vaulted to the upper reaches of the rare wine world as a collector, dealer and aficionado, despite having no job or identifiable source of funds. His vague claims of family wealth have never been substantiated. Kurniawan generously shared rare and expensive bottles with collectors and venerated winemakers. He sold a plenitude of old Bordeaux, but his favorite region was Burgundy. His wine of choice was Domaine de la Romanée-Conti—gaining him the nickname “Dr. Conti.”
Scouring domestic and European cellars at the peak of his activity, Kurniawan reportedly purchased up to $1 million worth of wine per month. Some of his inventory was sold in a pair of single-seller auctions held by Acker Merrall & Condit in January and October 2006. The first of those auctions, called simply "The Cellar," brought in $10.6 million. The second, known as "The Cellar II," grossed $24.7 million—still a record for a wine auction by a single individual.
At a final pretrial hearing Dec. 5 in the courtroom of Judge Richard Berman, lead prosecutor Jason Hernandez handed a bottle purchased at the Cellar II auction to the defense's prospective expert witness, C. Robert Collins. The bottle was labeled Domaine G. Roumier Bonnes Mares 1923. Collins, who claimed familiarity with old Roumier vintages from his days as a wine merchant in San Francisco, was asked if he recognized the label. "I would say this label is inconsistent with any label I have ever seen," Collins said. The bottle was one of 10 Roumier Bonnes Mares 1923 sold by Kurniawan at that auction. Roumier did not begin bottling wine until 1924.
Hernandez and his team will attempt to prove that Kurniawan made millions of dollars selling counterfeit wines during at least four New York auctions from 2005 to 2008, and tried to sell counterfeits through a straw man at a London auction in early 2012. Kurniawan also allegedly sold counterfeits directly to collectors, many of them people he had shared wines with at auctions and lavish dinners. Auction house Acker Merrall & Condit and some of those same collectors also lent Kurniawan money. Three of Burgundy’s most famous names—Aubert de Villaine of Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, Christophe Roumier of Domaine Georges Roumier and Laurent Ponsot of Domaine Ponsot—will testify on the inauthenticity of the wines and also on the damage Kurniawan’s work has inflicted.
Prosecutors will also attempt to prove that Kurniawan wasn’t merely a dealer of counterfeits, but the source. During a protective sweep of Kurniawan’s house in a Los Angeles suburb, moments after his arrest early on the morning of March 8, 2012, FBI agents opened a locked room to discover what they allege was a well-equipped wine counterfeiting workshop. Among their finds were hundreds of labels for iconic wines and notes for creating counterfeits.
How will Kurniawan’s lawyers, the second group he has hired, attempt to rebut these charges? On the day before the Dec. 5 pretrial hearing, their expert witness Collins inspected 50 bottles from among Kurniawan's wines that the prosecution will submit as evidence at trial. Asked by lead defense lawyer Jerome Mooney how many of the bottles were probably counterfeit, Collins responded, "80 percent were fake.”
In an interview with Wine Spectator, Mooney suggested the defense would try to show that their client is a scapegoat for widespread counterfeits in wine collecting. "There were a lot of counterfeits in the market, and these rich collectors kept selling them from person to person. At some point in time, somebody says, 'Oh my God, I've got a counterfeit in my collection!' And our guy is the one they point to when the music stops."
It’s true that revelations at the trial could reveal ugly truths about counterfeits being sold at auction. Collectors are far more vigilant today, but experts say counterfeits remain a problem. Whether Rudy Kurniawan is guilty of being a major source of fakes will be up to a jury of 12 people, to be chosen on the morning of Dec. 9. Opening arguments are scheduled for the following day.
During his long incarceration, Kurniawan, dressed in baggy prisoner's khakis at court appearances, has clearly lost weight. The court approved a defense request for a new wardrobe, and late last week Mooney and co-counsel Vincent S. Verdiramo shopped at Men's Wearhouse for dress shirts, ties, a belt, shoes, socks, underwear and two suits. "We need the customer to come in for a fitting," the salesperson said.
"That will be a little difficult," the lawyers replied.