Rudy Kurniawan, the infamous wine counterfeiter now serving time in a federal prison, enjoyed the taste of great Burgundies (and was convicted of making many fake ones too). But the man fellow wine lovers dubbed “Dr. Conti,” for his love of Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, also owned a share of Burgundy’s terroir itself. Now that share has been sold.
In 2006, Kurniawan took 250 shares in a partnership created to buy several prestigious vineyards on Burgundy's Côte d'Or, including some parcels of Beaune premiers crus and the Vosne-Romanée cru Malconsorts. Kurniawan's shares constituted 22.73 percent of the six-person entity, named Etienne & Partners. The shares entitled each holder to dividends in wine from the vineyards, managed by Etienne de Montille, 53, scion of the Volnay-based de Montille family.
Kurniawan forfeited his shares to the U.S. government in July 2014, seven months after he was convicted of fraud. Wine Spectator has learned that the shares were quietly sold back to the de Montille family two months ago after extended negotiations with the Justice Department. As Etienne explained, the family paid about $726,000—about 1.5 percent more than Kurniawan paid and, "a little more than I wanted to pay." The proceeds will go toward restitution for his victims.
Due to restrictions in the partnership's bylaws, the shares could not be sold at public auction, unlike Kurniawan's three cars and thousands of bottles of authenticated wines, which an online auctioneer sold in December for $1.84 million.
The tale of Kurniawan's share in Burgundy vines begins in 2006. De Montille sought to buy the Thomas-Moillard wine estate—42.5 acres of mostly premier cru and grand cru vineyards. It was a rare, large-scale offering that de Montille could not pass up.
To swing the $22 million purchase price, he needed outside investors. He lined up fellow wine estate Domaine Dujac as a co-investor and divided ownership of the vineyards between two partnerships, each of which took on a small number of wealthy collectors as investors.
Paul Wasserman, who operated a Los Angeles wine shop and storage facility financed by Kurniawan, introduced his partner to de Montille. "Etienne fell under Rudy's charm, like we all did," said Wasserman, who is the son of Burgundian négociant Becky Wasserman.
De Montille doesn't deny the potency of that charm. "It was 2006, and Rudy was the hot guy you wanted to hang out with and share a bottle with," he told Wine Spectator. "He was generous, he was a gifted taster, and he was considered to be in the inner circle of fine wine collectors." De Montille checked with other trusted collectors, who vouched for Kurniawan.
Two years later, Kurniawan's luster started to tarnish as allegations of counterfeit wines surfaced. De Montille began to have second thoughts. In 2011, during a visit to Los Angeles, de Montille confronted Kurniawan. "I said, 'There are a lot of rumors and suspicions about you. If they are true, in no way can I be associated with you.'"
"He looked me straight in the eyes and said, 'It's all bullshit.' And he said that when you come out of the blue and build up a great cellar in a short time, as he had, 'people are jealous.' To be honest, when you have no solid proof, you have to give the person the benefit of the doubt. And yet I was disturbed, because Burgundy is built on confidence. If you buy a Pommard Rugiens from Domaine de Montille, there is no scientific proof that it's Rugiens in the bottle. It's all about trust."
FBI agents arrested Kurniawan on March 8, 2012. "When I saw the photos of the false labels, corks and empty bottles, I was more than disappointed," said de Montille. "I felt completely betrayed."
Now Kurniawan's former shares are owned by a de Montille family entity. "They will never leave us again," said de Montille. And Kurniawan never got to enjoy the dividends of his investment. "I offered to ship him his wine, but he said, 'Oh, don't worry about it.'"