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We recently watched a documentary on wine fraud, told by former friends and associates of Rudy Kurniawan, on YouTube: The Greatest Wine Forger- Rudy Kurniawan.
Deported from the United States, months after completing his federal prison sentence, he was in ICE custody since his release on Nov. 6, and Uncle Sam recently gifted him a direct 36-hour commercial flight from DFW Airport to Jakarta. Kurniawan’s attorney said his client asked to pay for an upgrade but ICE insisted that he fly coach.
Kurniawan ordered to pay $28.4 million in restitution, and to forfeit $20 million in property; so far, the restitution made is less that 10%. His legitimate wines sold at auction, but they raised only $1.5 million. His most vocal and visible victim, Bill Koch, sued, and in 2014, settled out of court for $3 million, none paid as of this date.
Another fraudster, Hardy Rodenstock, had previously swindled Koch: in which he purchased some 200-year-old wine, allegedly from the collection of Thomas Jefferson.
He returns home to a life in the lap of luxury. His uncles include a couple of world-class embezzlers.
Uncle Eddy embezzled $420 million from an Indonesian bank, used some of it to bribe his way out of prison, and is reported to be living in China. Uncle Hendra, died in Australia, during Indonesian extradition attempts. He had scored a $264 million bank fraud. This writer predicts Rudy will make another pass at the world’s wealthiest with
some type of fraud, whether wine or investments.
Rudy became aware of wine as a hobby in 2000, and as fate would have it, he walked into the Woodland Hills Wine Company in Woodland Hills, California. There he made friends with Kyle Smith, who had connections with the 10 most prominent wine collectors and tasters in Los Angeles.
Rudy was a quick study and within six months joined the group. Early on, he was amassing a half million-dollar cellar of legitimate wines. By 2003, he was forging
wines and showing up with bottles not seen by anyone in years, including several magnums of 1921 Petrus.
He also became a fixture in the New York wine scene. One of his fans, Jon Kapon, a wine merchant, introduced Rudy to a wine tasting group named the 12 Angry Men. He quickly became a member, and eventually the leader of the group, because every meeting he brought wines that were so rare that none of the wealthy young
urbanites had ever seen them, or much less, tasted them. The group members all had nicknames, Rudy named himself Dr. Conti, from Romanée-Conti, his favorite wine. Others used names like the Hillbilly, the Don, and King Angry.
Fate also intervened in another way, at the time the collector market was focused on Bordeaux wines; people would buy wine futures where they paid for wine 19-24 months before is was ready to ship. That practice was fraught with problems, and was an expensive game to play.
Meanwhile, collectors had become aware that Burgundy wines, undervalued in comparison, might be an alternative. It became the darling of the new American wealthy class. Perhaps a lack of experience in those wines made it easier for Rudy to pull the wool over eyes, as he usually dealt in Burgundian wines, like Châteax like Latache, Petrus and Cheval Blanc.
Fate played once more and it did not favor Rudy. Either he began, mistakenly or brazenly, forging wines in vintages not produced. In 2008, the owner, Laurent Ponsot of Domaine Ponsot in Burgundy, interrupted a prominent auction in New York City. The wine was a 1945 Domaine Ponsot Clos St Denis, a wine with its first bottling in 1982. He had flown in from France that morning because the auctioneer did not take his warnings seriously over the phone.
He then spent the next two years tracking down Rudy’s suppliers of corks, stamps, labels, and other tools involved in counterfeiting wine, along with many empty bottles.
When the FBI finally checked in with Ponsot, they found his information compelling enough to prosecute a case. He also informed the agents that Rudy had nine
different passports, making him quite a flight risk, thus there was no bail, after arrest.
Ponsot is working on a novel in which he posits that Rudy could not have done all of this by himself. For libel purposes, he will not name actual participants, but he says knowledgeable people in the industry will recognize the players.
This writer recently had a glass of wine with a local that was a victim of Rudy. He said he could tell the wine, Château Cos d’Estournel, Grand Cru Classé from Saint-Estèphe, was a fraud immediately. He has another bottle of it and promises to bring it next time we taste.
Stay healthy, and Cheers.
You can reach Robert Russell at firstname.lastname@example.org
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