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Accused Wine Counterfeiter Rudy Kurniawan Guilty in Landmark Case

First federal prosecution for selling fake wine yields a conviction; Indonesian collector faces possible sentence of 40 years

Peter Hellman, Mitch Frank
Posted: December 18, 2013

Rudy Kurniawan did something unprecedented in the world of rare wines in 2006. An Acker, Merrall & Condit auction of his wines raised $24.7 million, the largest total ever for a single consignor. On Wednesday, Dec. 18, Kurniawan set another precedent. A federal jury pronounced him guilty of fraud for selling counterfeit wines and defrauding a finance company, making the 37-year-old Indonesian the first person tried and convicted for selling fake wines in the U.S.

Wearing an ill-fitting gray suit, Kurniawan stood tight-lipped, with his hands crossed in front of him, as a middle-aged woman, the forewoman for a 12-person jury, read the verdict. He gave no reaction. His lawyers did not look at him. The jury deliberated for about an hour and 45 minutes before returning at 10:55 a.m. with the decision.

Burgundy winemaker Laurent Ponsot, who has attended each day of the proceedings, told Wine Spectator after the verdict, "I feel no pity for him. It's good justice."

Kurniawan surfaced in rare wine circles a decade ago and quickly became a fixture at tastings and auctions, known for his passion for Burgundy and a talent for sniffing out fakes. Fellow collectors dubbed him “Dr. Conti” for his love of Domaine de la Romanée-Conti. Soon he was scouring cellars in America and Europe, looking for collectible wines, and selling hundreds of bottles at auctions and in private sales.

An Indonesian of Chinese ancestry, he had been living in Los Angeles for several years. (An immigration court ordered him to leave the country in 2003, but he appealed the case and it was pending.) Kurniawan was always vague about how he was spending millions of dollars on rare wines, as well as a Lamborghini and a wardrobe full of expensive watches. He said his family had done well in business in Asia.

But Kurniawan’s image as a savvy collector was tarnished when 22 lots of rare Burgundies supposedly from Domaine Ponsot were withdrawn from a 2008 Acker, Merrall & Condit auction at the request of proprietor Laurent Ponsot. As first reported by Wine Spectator, a collector with doubts on the wines’ authenticity had alerted Ponsot, who traveled to New York to make sure they were withdrawn. Asked where he had found the wines, Kurniawan was evasive.

More doubts surfaced soon as other collectors questioned wines Kurniawan had sold and it was revealed that he owed millions of dollars to Acker and some of its clients. Collector Bill Koch filed a lawsuit against Kurniawan in 2009. In February 2012, wines consigned by Antonio Castanos, a Los Angeles restaurateur and wine dealer, were withdrawn from a London auction by Spectrum after collectors raised doubts about them. Castanos testified in court this past week that he was a straw man for Kurniawan. A month after the Spectrum sale, FBI agents knocked on Kurniawan’s door, arrested him and conducted a protective sweep of his home. They found hundreds of bottles, labels, corks, stamps and notes that looked like the raw materials for making rare wines.

That physical evidence would form the foundation of the prosecution’s case, as Assistant U.S. Attorney Jason Hernandez and his team laid out boxes and boxes of the materials on a large table for the jury to see. An expert witness explained how labels had been copied and altered to create rare old bottles of Domaine de la Romanée-Conti and Château Latour. He added that he had examined at least 1,077 counterfeit wines over his career sourced from Kurniawan, including many at that 2006 sale and 267 bottles FBI agents seized from Kurniawan’s home. And three of Burgundy’s top vignerons took the stand to say that bottles Kurniawan sold bearing their winery’s labels were fakes.

The defense team, led by lawyer Jerome Mooney, tried to turn the suspicions toward the wine-collecting community, arguing that the market is full of counterfeits and that Kurniawan was being made a scapegoat. Mooney asked the winemakers whether the market was flooded with fake Burgundies. He tried to raise doubts about the credibility of the witnesses. In his closing arguments, Mooney claimed Kurniawan had merely been “reconditioning” and touching up the wines found in his home. And the labels, he argued, were for wallpaper in a home Kurniawan was building.

But the jury didn’t buy it. After the verdict was read, Judge Richard Berman set a sentencing date for April 24. Kurniawan faces a possible 40 years in prison, as well as fines. "He really just wanted to be accepted," Mooney said after the decision. "People were very supportive of him, but the moment he was arrested, everybody ran. My theory: He comes up with some wines that were truly rare. Suddenly people want to be with him. When he couldn't find more, he made it."

U.S. Department of Justice

A prosecution photo shows bottles with rare Bordeaux and Burgundy labels littering the floor in Kurniawan's house.

Allan J Sagot
USA —  December 18, 2013 1:30pm ET
Let all those considering participation in such fraudulent behavior realize the consequences that await them. Oh yes, the wine lists in prison are not very good....cheers!!!
Tone Kelly
Rochester NY USA —  December 18, 2013 1:35pm ET
Unfortunately his fakes will live long after Rudy is gone from the scene. The auction houses and the wine collecting community should be made aware of what to look for and keep these fakes from surfacing again.

It would be helpful if Rudy were to generate a list of the wines he "created", but I doubt that he will.
Jason Kozar
Canada —  December 18, 2013 2:02pm ET
Fantastic. This whole thing has been so sketchy for so long it's nice to see this outcome. Even though I don't dabble in the wines he was counterfeiting it is justice. Now lets make sure he doesn't get some lame 2 years sentence out of the possible 40.
Jeremy Matouk
Port of Spain, Trinidad —  December 18, 2013 8:58pm ET
I feel no pity for him. Greed and dishonesty on display. But nor do I feel sorry for those he fooled, who saw wine as a means of either making money or boosting their egos. Collecting wine without the intention of drinking it or passing it on to future generations runs counter to everything I admire about the wine business.
There's a scoundrel on every corner and a sucker born every day.
Lawrence Newcombe
bay City , MI —  December 19, 2013 12:41pm ET
A lengthy stay at Pelican Bay and deportation .
Greg Flanagan
Bethel, CT —  December 19, 2013 6:57pm ET
What about his "buddies"?

Could have sworn that I read somewhere that he made some interesting connections to those that sold these wines....

Just wondering.

It seems that there would be more people involved in something like this.

Salim Asrawi
Houston —  December 19, 2013 7:05pm ET
Couterfeit wines of many older wines are still fairly easy to produce by most anyone with the mindset. Beware of these everyone. Provenence is vital.
On a happy note many high end wine producers are putting security markings on production today.
Alan Seicshnaydre
metairie la —  December 21, 2013 1:55pm ET
On a purely practical level there is little room for compassion for those who cheat others whether well-heeled or not. Simple fairness extends this even to those with a commercial only interest
On a touchy feely level this offense rises to a higher level of contempt. After all, Wine is special (or should be) even to those without a sophisticated palate or refined taste. Wine is a living, breathing entity. It is ever changing for better or for worse. As compared to spirits where expectations insist on consistency, wine is clearly dynamic, nuanced and occasionally overwhelmingly captivating. It invites conversation and analysis. And what range! While esoteric to some when done at a highly artistic level it can also be for everyman when done simply and directly. Therefore the offender has cheated the wine lover/victim of more than mere money.
As compared to Jeremy’s contempt for all of those duped, I feel real empathy for the duped wine lover

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