A Wine Sleuth and Would-Be Novelist

Burgundy winemaker Laurent Ponsot writes his own version of counterfeiter Rudy Kurniawan’s story

A Wine Sleuth and Would-Be Novelist
"I did it for principle,” says Laurent Ponsot of the large chunk of his life he devoted to raising awareness of fake wines. (Courtesy of Laurent Ponsot)
Jun 2, 2020

Laurent Ponsot, the Burgundy winemaker and crusader against wine fraud, has been writing.

Just turned 66, Ponsot used his two months under COVID-19 lockdown in France’s Jura mountains to work on his long-promised book laying out his discoveries and theories about Rudy Kurniawan, the fresh-faced, young wine counterfeiter convicted by a U.S. federal court in 2013 and later sentenced to 10 years in prison.

“When I started my crusade, I saw myself as Don Quixote. I did it for principle,” Ponsot said via video chat one morning in May. “This guy was dirtying the spirit of wine, and it became vital for me to investigate.”

“So far I have written three of the 31 chapters,” Ponsot added. “But I have it all organized and in my head. It’s just a matter of writing.”

Ponsot is not the first writer to say that, I thought.

Nevertheless, he says the book will contain new details about Kurniawan, whose dealings in fake collectible wines were chronicled in the documentary Sour Grapes, released on Netflix in 2016. Ponsot played a featured role in that film as the vigneron who doggedly helped authorities bring the fraudster to justice.

“Kurniawan had nine identities, including one female identity,” said Ponsot, revealing some of the depth of research that will appear in his book.

Kurniawan, now 43, is believed to have been born Zen Wang Huang in Jakarta, Indonesia, and traveled to the United States on a student visa in the 1990s. Investigators in Sour Grapes identify Kurniawan’s family members, including his mother, Lenywati Tan, who lived with him in Los Angeles, and his uncles, convicted bank fraudsters in Asia.

Yet Ponsot has staked out a contrarian view on Kurniawan’s family ties.

“I suspect the woman living in his house is not his real mother,” said Ponsot, who believes the birth certificates Kurniawan presented to authorities around the world were also fakes. “I cannot prove it, but everything about Rudy was false.”

Read Wine Spectator's full story, "Catching Dr. Conti," on Rudy Kurniawan's counterfeit scheme and how it was broken up.

Kurniawan’s world is a complicated web, so I phoned Brad Goldstein, the Florida-based consultant who coordinated a years-long investigation into wine counterfeiting for billionaire William Koch and who is also featured prominently in Sour Grapes. He categorically dismissed Ponsot’s view as baseless, saying Kurniawan’s family connections are well-documented: “The evidence is overwhelming.”

Ponsot says his book will take the form of a novel—allowing him greater latitude and interpretation.

The novel will open with his first real-life awareness of Kurniawan’s fraud—when he received a call from a New York attorney and wine collector in early 2008 about 22 suspicious lots, totaling about 90 bottles, of his family’s Domaine Ponsot being presented for auction by Acker Merrall & Condit at the New York restaurant Cru. Among that lot were Kurniawan-consigned bottles of Clos St.-Denis with vintages dating to 1945—an impossibility, as the domaine only started bottling that grand cru in 1982.

Ponsot famously traveled to New York to stop the April auction and met Kurniawan for lunch at the restaurant Jean-Georges the next day, not knowing if Kurniawan was a victim or a predator. His next two meetings with Kurniawan were in Los Angeles, where in 2009, Ponsot finally confronted and accused Kurniawan.

Over five years, the case became a part-time job for Ponsot, who says he spent 15 percent of his time working with federal investigators and doing amateur sleuthing on three continents.

“For me, when I have a project or a subject, I have to dig and do the research,” Ponsot said. “I don’t stop until I am finished.”

About a year after Kurniawan’s conviction, Ponsot said, he tasted “by chance” a Kurniawan counterfeit of Domaine Ponsot’s crown jewel, Clos de la Roche. It was at a pricey wine dinner in the San Fransisco Bay Area where 17 Ponsot wines were being poured; among them were five bottles of 1972 Clos de La Roche—one of which had been bought at auction and had Kurniawan’s initials marked on the back.

“I tasted it, and the wine was quite good—but not as good as the others, which were outstanding,” Ponsot said. He says that Kurniawan had purchased Clos de la Roche from another producer at a fraction of the price and changed the label—flipping it for about 25 times its value.

“He was quite smart,” Ponsot said. “It was a Clos de la Roche, but it was not Domaine Ponsot.”

Kurniawan is scheduled to be released from federal prison in Texas this November, and his prison sentence requires that he be deported directly to Jakarta.

“After that, I do not know what will happen to him,” Ponsot says. “I do know there is money somewhere and that, if he is smart, he will take that money and disappear.”

Ponsot, who quit his family’s domaine three years ago to launch his own négociant business, says his book will close his life’s final chapter on Rudy Kurniawan.

“It will be the final point of the story,” Ponsot said. “After the book is published, I will never, ever talk about this case again. To anyone.”

People Auctions Crime Fraud Collecting Burgundy France

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