For Burgundy groupies, courtroom 12D at the Daniel Patrick Moynihan federal courthouse in Lower Manhattan seemed like the place to be on Thursday. Except, sadly, this was no wine tasting. A trio of the Côte d'Or's top winemakers converged to testify in the trial of alleged wine counterfeiter Rudy Kurniawan.
Federal prosecutors accuse Kurniawan, 37, of having counterfeited and sold the wines of numerous top producers, including three of Burgundy’s elite domaines: G. Roumier, Ponsot and Romanée-Conti.
Silver-haired Laurent Ponsot, dapper in a gray suit and pink tie, took the stand first. The case against Kurniawan was born in April 2008 when Doug Barzelay, a New York wine collector, sent Ponsot photos of what were purportedly 22 lots of iconic vintages of Ponsot’s grand cru wines from Clos de la Roche and Clos-St.-Denis that were about to be auctioned by Acker Merrall & Condit. Barzelay had never seen any of the vintages before and was curious to get Ponsot's opinion. "I'm glad I was sitting down when I saw the photos in the catalog, or I would have fallen down," Ponsot said, eliciting chuckles from the 12 jurors.
What Ponsot saw were images of Clos-St.-Denis in vintages 1945 to 1971, an "impossibility" given that his father only got access to that appellation in 1982. He also saw a single bottle of Clos de la Roche 1929 whose label said "Mis en bouteilles au Domaine”—another impossibility, Ponsot said, given that his grandfather only started to estate bottle in 1934. The labels and wax capsules visible in the photos were mostly incorrect. Ponsot called John Kapon, Acker's head, and asked him to withdraw the wines.
On the day of the auction, Ponsot flew to New York and went to the auction to be sure that the wines were withdrawn. The next day, Ponsot, Kurniawan, Kapon and Barzelay lunched at the restaurant Jean-Georges. "After the introductions, I immediately asked Rudy where he got the bottles," Ponsot testified. "Staring into his plate, Rudy said, 'I buy so much wine, I don't know where I got them.'" Ponsot thought that answer was "bizarre." "To have 84 bottles of such old Ponsot, how could you not know where you got them?"
One month later, Ponsot testified, he received an e-mail from the Indonesian collector naming "Pak Hendra in Asia" as the source of the withdrawn wines. "When you say 'Asia,' it's quite wide," Ponsot told the jury. He later learned that Pak is Indonesian for "Mr." and that Hendra is a common name in Indonesia. Ponsot met Kurniawan in Los Angeles in May and again in July 2008, when Kurniawan gave him a handwritten note with two phone numbers for Pak Hendra in Jakarta. One never answered, the other belonged to Lion Air, an airline.
Ponsot began his own investigation, but he told the court he failed to locate the source of the Faux Ponsots. Lead prosecutor Jason Hernandez then handed Ponsot a large stack of labels imprinted with his domaine's name, which FBI agents say they discovered in Kurniawan's house on the day he was arrested.
Ponsot was haunted by the thought, he testified, "that someone will open these bottles, and they will be disappointed. But more than that, it will dirty the reputation of our wines. You don't have a word in English for terroir. But it's what gives this spirit, this unique thing that we have."
Domaine G. Roumier proprietor Christophe Roumier testified that bottles of a wine purportedly from his family, Bonnes Mares Domaine Belorgey 1923, could not exist because his father did not purchase Belorgey until 1952. Handed stacks of labels for old-vintage Roumier wines that the agents say they found in Kurniawan's house, Roumier said that "the look is really close to ours, except that the cut of the edges of my grandfather's labels were never as neat and as clean as here."
When Aubert de Villaine, 74, was on the witness stand, he was handed packets of labels for his Domaine de la Romanée-Conti Romanée-Conti from 1933, 1915, 1911, 1906 and 1900, all collected by the FBI as evidence from Kurniawan's house. "To see labels like this that no longer exist at our domaine is quite incredible," de Villaine said, shaking his head. "It's more than extraordinary. It's like a movie."
De Villaine was shown a label with "Richebourg Vieux Cepages 1945" on both sides. "Did you ever print on both sides like that?" asked defense attorney Jerome Mooney.
"We don't have to save on paper that much," said de Villaine with a smile. After the hearing, all three producers told reporters that counterfeiting of wines is a growing international problem and they hope the case will send a message.