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Will Rudy Kurniawan Find a New Lawyer?

Plus, Montalcino's Argiano has been acquitted of charges it made illegitimate Brunello, and a Napa Valley foie gras lawsuit gets a green light

Posted: July 11, 2013

• Accused wine counterfeiter Rudy Kurniawan and his lawyer may soon be parting ways. After meeting privately today with Kurniawan and defense attorney Michael Proctor, Judge Richard Berman returned to his lower Manhattan federal courtroom and set another conference for July 17, saying, "There may very well be a substitute counsel at that conference. That's my expectation." It was not revealed who will replace Proctor, a Los Angeles–based lawyer who has represented Kurniawan since shortly after his arrest by FBI agents on March 9, 2012, at his home in Arcadia, Calif. Tension between Kurniawan and Proctor has been brewing for at least a month. On Monday, Judge Berman noted that at a conference on June 11, there had been "some issues between Mr. Kurniawan and defense counsel," and asked Proctor where matters stood. "What I can say in open court is that it's unfortunate that facts and circumstances haven't changed," Proctor said. Asked if the issues with his client were strategic or financial, Proctor told Unfiltered, "If I answered you, I could be disbarred." At Monday's court session, the judge summoned a so-called "CJ" lawyer to possibly represent Kurniawan. Under the Criminal Justice Act of 1964, the federal courts can appoint a volunteer lawyer to represent a defendant who cannot afford private counsel. Looking sternly at Kurniawan, the judge said, "One has to swear under penalty of perjury that one doesn't have the resources to maintain one's own counsel [to obtain representation by a CJ attorney]. That's a serious commitment to make." Kurniawan apparently took that warning to heart, as the CJ lawyer designated by the judge, Dawn Cardi, will not be representing him at next week's conference.

Bringing on a new defense lawyer could imperil Kurniawan's trial date, set for Sept. 9. The prosecution is anxious to keep that date. It hopes to bring three top Burgundian winemakers to New York to testify at the trial. Due to a projected late harvest this year, the three—Aubert de Villaine of Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, Christian Roumier of Domaine Roumier and Laurent Ponsot of Domaine Ponsot—have said they can be on hand to testify in early September, but their winemaking duties will likely not permit them to come later. In that case, video testimony would be substituted, which the prosecution prefers not to do. Lead prosecutor Jason Hernandez told the judge, "We encourage your honor to keep this [Sept. 9] trial date, because the alternatives are pretty grim."

Six years after the "Brunellopoli" scandal first marred the region's reputation with charges of fraudulent blending by some of Tuscany's most iconic wineries, the unfortunate chapter in Italian wine seems to have come to a close for one accused Brunello producer. Argiano fought the charges that its 2003 Brunello had contained any grapes other than Sangiovese and, after years in court, it has been acquitted on all counts, according to lawyer Massimo Arisi. Besides Argiano, Frescobaldi's Castelgiocondo, Antinori's Pian delle Vigne, Castello Banfi and Casanova di Neri were known to be under investigation, though Arisi claimed many others were, too.

Back in 2008, authorities sequestered Argiano's 2003 Brunello for inspection—importer Vias marketing manager Hilary Ruesch told Unfiltered that even wine that had already been shipped was seized by the TTB in the U.S.—which forced the winery to make the hard decision of declassifying its flagship wine to the lower IGT status to get it to market. Still, Argiano decided to face trial in Siena to vindicate the brand. Echoing Arisi, Ruesch said the verdict came through that "these were unfounded accusations and no part of the process was found flawed in any way." While chemical analysis of a wine can be inconclusive, investigators were also able to comb the Argiano vineyards—with 9,200 cases of Brunello a year, Argiano was one of the smaller operations implicated—and determine that the acreage of Sangiovese vines would have yielded enough wine to make a pure Brunello, refuting the core claim of the original charge. "They are thrilled to have it behind them," said Ruesch. "It has hung over those still involved in the winery" and vindicates winemaker Hans Vinding-Diers. With new owners this year, the acquittal paves the way for a "fresh start" for Argiano. It may never be known whether there was merit to the Brunellopoli charges anywhere in the region, but "the damage to the Brunello brand is really the true legacy of this case," said Ruesch.

The California foie gras opposition saga continued in Napa Valley this week when a Napa County Superior Court judge rejected a request to dismiss a lawsuit against Napa chef Ken Frank, owner of La Toque restaurant. Frank, who continues to serve foie gras to guests at his restaurant despite a state ban on its sale and production, claims that he does not “sell” the banned substance to diners, but that he “gifts” it to randomly selected guests. Frank said he sees it as a form of protest against a law that he considers unjust. “It’s just like getting free ice cream on your birthday," Frank said. "If it’s free, it’s free.” Not so, ruled Napa County Superior Court Judge Diane Price. Price said the serving of foie gras to paying customers constitutes “sales.” Frank said he plans to continue serving foie gras to select guests at his restaurant despite the judge’s ruling. In addition, said Frank, “I plan to launch a series of foie gras cooking classes that will be free. I’m confident that at the end of the day, I will prevail.” In March, the Cotati-based Animal Legal Defense Fund (ALDF) filed a lawsuit against La Toque and Frank following an undercover sting operation. ALDF attorney John Melia said he was delighted that the judge denied Frank’s anti-SLAPP lawsuit against his organization, and ruled that the ALDF lawsuit was not frivolous. Said Melia, “Such arrogance directly causes the suffering of hundreds of thousands of birds.” A date has not been set for the trial.

Roger Smith
Royal Oak, Mich —  July 11, 2013 4:40pm ET
Well it's started in the land of fruits nuts, and vines. California is after your foie gras, large soda drinks, and whatever the food Nazis will come after next. Maybe your Kobe beef because the cows are forced to drink beer. Certainly your caviar is suspect too. What idiots think that public funds are well spent in pursuing a chef in a luxury restaurant in a state that is bankrupt? PETA and the ALDF gets NONE of my $.
Christine Humphrey
Thousand Oaks, Ca.  —  July 12, 2013 1:24am ET
To Roger Smith...I agree that the foie gras ban is goofy, but you are misinformed on your other slams of California, where I live. We have no large soda ban, that is NY, and we are not bankrupt...quite the contrary. So, please do a little fact checking before criticizing the Golden State, whose wines you probably enjoy from time to time.

Roger Smith
Royal Oak, Mich —  July 12, 2013 7:42pm ET
My apologies on the incorrect facts. Californias budget woes seem to be fixed compared to the dire predictions of 2010. Although Stockton did go bankrupt. I do enjoy California wines very much. My real concern is if our foie gras is threatened what is next?
Bill Matarese
Florida, USA —  July 16, 2013 10:56am ET
The whole "Brunellopoli" scandal was such an utter waste of time. Who cares if some producers added a little Cab or Merlot to their 2003 Brunello? It was the second LOUSY vintage in a row for Brunello. God forbid these producers from doing something to make their (expensive) wine drinkable.

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