Convicted wine counterfeiter Rudy Kurniawan's lawyers have asked a federal judge to free him soon. In a memo to U.S. District Judge Richard Berman, the attorneys argue that when Kurniawan is sentenced on May 29, the judge should sentence him to time served—the roughly 27 months since his arrest that he has been in a Brooklyn detention center. Convicted last year of schemes to counterfeit wine and defraud a finance company, Kurniawan faces a maximum sentence of 20 years on each count and possible fines.
Their filing with the court also offers new details of Kurniawan's origins and attempts to explain how he ended up producing fakes of some of the world's most famous wines.
The defense memo, written by lawyers Jerome Mooney and Vincent Verdiramo, estimates that Kurnaiwan sold up to $7 million of wine that he personally counterfeited, but argues that the losses to wealthy purchasers inflicted little harm. Mooney and Verdiramo point to the global financial crisis in 2008 and argue that Rudy's crimes were far less harmful than bank executives that were never prosecuted. "Unlike most of the financial fraud and questionable market-related behaviors occurring during this same period of time, the harm done by Rudy has had little or no lasting impact on the victims."
And because his counterfeits were sold to wealthy collectors, Mooney and Verdiramo compare the losses to, "the theft of a $200,000 Rolls Royce from a wealthy person with a garage full of vehicles versus the theft of a $10,000 Ford from a worker who needs it to get to work."
The report paints a picture of a young man who grew up isolated, with few friends. Kurniawan was born in 1976 in Indonesia; his family were Christians and ethnic Chinese. Financially successful, they lived in a compound, removed from the majority-Muslim population. Kurniawan spent much of his childhood at a boarding school in Singapore. He traveled to California, the report states, to study, obtained a degree in accounting in 1996 and lived with his mother and brother. His father died in 2000; his brother committed suicide in 2002, the report states.
At a 1999 birthday dinner for his father, Kurniawan ordered a bottle of Opus One, and the wine entranced him, the report states. He began to attend tastings at Red Carpet, a Los Angeles wine shop and discovered he had a good palate and taste memory. It was his ticket into a world of wealthy collectors, and he was soon supplying iconic wines that "put him head to head with other members of this rarified club of older wealthier men."
The report continues, "Rudy liked the feeling of being the center of attention." At a birthday dinner Kurniawan hosted for his mother, actor Jackie Chan "jumped on a chair and applauded Rudy. It was the best night of his life."
Flush with family money whose source has never been identified, Kurniawan was soon buying heavily at wine auctions as well as from dealers. From 2004 to 2011, he spent over $40 million on wine, the report claims. But authentic bottles of the rarest wines were becoming harder to come by. "If he could not find the wines to give him acclaim, he could create them," the report says. "He knew he could faithfully reproduce not just the package, but the contents—the taste of the wine within. It was challenging, exciting, compelling and fun—and not a little addictive."
Despite speculation to the contrary, Kurniawan's counterfeits were all "carefully created by his own hand," in his kitchen, the lawyers claim. An Indonesian printer "created authentic reproductions of labels and stickers." According to the report, in 2005 he first sold wines that he had "modified" through Acker Merrall & Condit, the New York auction house captained by John Kapon. Soon, Kurniawan was receiving ever-larger advances against future sales from Acker and some of its customers. But he was spending cash as fast as it came in on a flashy lifestyle.
In April 2008, saddled with large debts, he tried to sell dozens of bottles of counterfeit Domaine Ponsot wines at an Acker sale. The domaine's proprietor, Laurent Ponsot, demanded that they be withdrawn from the auction. Kapon never again sold wine sourced from Kurniawan. Kapon has denied repeatedly that he ever suspected Kurniawan of creating fakes. Still facing financial ruin and not wanting to ask his family for help, the report claims, Kurniawan continued producing fakes to sell to collectors.
The government will submit its sentencing report May 9. The court's probation department will also submit a sentencing recommendation to Judge Berman. It has been difficult for the probation officer assigned to the case to total up the losses from Kurniawan counterfeits, according to persons familiar with the situation, because some victims are not forthcoming about the Kurniawan-created wines in their cellars.