Recent News from the World of Wine Forgery

A toast between friends
Toasting the good life.

Last summer I wrote a post about Rudy Kurniawan, perhaps the world’s greatest wine forger. His story is told in both a Netflix documentary, Sour Grapes, and an award-winning book, In Vino Duplicitas. Kurniawan, a young and charismatic wine collector who scammed wealthy wine collectors out of millions, makes a beguiling central character. What’s more, there are several other intriguing personalities that graced his fraudulent trajectory. Last weekend, I thought I’d check and see what some of them are up to. This article updates my original post and adds a few missing details.

From Behind the Bar to Behind Bars

The gifted Rudy Kurniawan
Rudy Kurniawan

Before his arrest in 2012, Kurnaiwan was known as a gracious host who threw lavish parties in the poshest New York and LA restaurants. After his felony conviction in 2014, Kurniawan filed and lost two appeals. The first appeal claimed that sentencing had been too harsh. The judge had ordered Kurniawan to serve 10 years in prison and pay $28.4 million in restitution. When a three-judge panel denied the appeal, a second appeal argued that Kurniawan’s lawyers had botched his defense by not demanding hearings to suppress evidence. FBI agents found the disputed evidence in Kurniawan’s home at the time of his arrest. The appeal claimed the agents conducted a warrantless search. Incriminating stacks of crates and wine bottles, however, lay in plain view of the front door of Kurniawan’s home. As a result, the second appeal also fell flat.

Kurniawan is currently incarcerated in a Federal Correctional Facility in Pecos, Texas. His release is scheduled for November of this year. Since he was living in the United States illegally, he’ll then be deported to his native country of Indonesia. In searching the web, I couldn’t find any information on why Kurniawan’s prison term falls short of 10 years. But, by all accounts he is a smart and likable fellow so I assume the early release is due to good behavior. Also unanswered is how much of the $28.4 million he paid off, whether he is still liable, and if returning to Indonesia will release him from any outstanding obligation.

Vigneron Turned Detective Turned Author

Laurent Ponsot
Laurent Ponsot

Laurent Ponsot, an illustrious wine-grower from the Burgundy region of France, was a key witness at Kurniawan’s trial. Ponsot was one of the first to discover that Kurniawan was selling counterfeit wines. His revelation came after noticing that Kurniawan was about to auction off 97 bottles of wine from the Ponsot Domaine. A few dozen of those bottles, Ponsot’s Clos Saint-Denis, vaunted dates between 1945 to 1971. Yet, the winery had only been making the vintage since the 1980s.

Evidently, selling fakes does not equate to creating them. Initially, Ponsot couldn’t be sure if Kurniawan was a counterfeiter or if he too had been the victim of one. He spent the next several months traveling the world, retracing Kurniawan’s footsteps. He now claims that the second half of the Netflix documentary, Sour Grapes, is fiction. One of the details that he disputes is the identity of Kurniawan’s mother and brother. Ponsot believes that the family members in Sour Grapes are not related to Kurniawan.

Ponsot also alleges that Kurniawan, who’s real name may be Zen Wang Huang, maintained 9 separate identities. The vigneron-turned-detective has been promising to write a book about these and other discoveries that he made during the course of his investigation. However, the man has been extremely busy with a new business venture. In February of 2017, he shocked Burgundy aficionados by leaving his family’s estate to strike out on his own.

Burgundy region
The Burgundy region lies in Eastern France.

Disenchanted with the high-end collector’s market, Ponsot confided in a 2018 interview that he wants “to produce wines that people can open and enjoy.” His new venture has expanded beyond the creation and marketing of a couple dozen new labels. Ponsot is also constructing another winery with a visitor center where people can learn about the wines, vineyards and terroir of Burgundy. It’s not surprising that he’s had little time for a book… until now.

During France’s 2-month COVID confinement period, Ponsot installed himself somewhere in the Jura mountains and began writing his long-awaited book. I was a bit disappointed to learn that he’s only written “3 of 31 chapters”. But, at least he has outlined the story in enough detail to envision 31 chapters. In an interview with Wine Spectator, Ponsot said, “I have it all organized and in my head. It’s just a matter of writing.” Still, even maintaining his recent lockdown pace, it could take another year to finish an initial draft.

Déjà Cru?

Pinot noir grapes
Red burgundies are made from pinot noir grapes.

When Ponsot first became aware of Kurniawan’s conterfeits, the fraudulent bottles were scheduled for auction by Acker Meral & Conduit, the oldest wine merchant in America. Hours before auction, at Ponsot’s insistence, Acker withdrew the lot of forged Clos Saint-Denis. It was hardly the first time, however, that Acker represented Kurniawan. In fact, the prestigious auction house successfully sold more that $35 million worth of Kurniawan’s wines. Last month, Acker’s integrity was once again called into question.

This time, Acker’s Hong Kong-based Asia Auction division was supposedly offering a 1924 bottle of Romanée Conti for up to $28,400. Domaine de la Romanée Conti burgundies are among the most coveted wines in the world. In 2018, a 1945 Romanée-Conti set the world record for the costliest bottle ever sold with a price tag of $558,000. Not surprisingly, DRC wines were among those that Rudy Kurniawan specialized in. His affinity for and deep knowledge of the Romanée-Conti domaine impressed friends and colleagues to the point that they nicknamed him Dr. Conti.

Both Romanée-Conti and Clos Saint-Denis labels belong to a larger class of wines known as Grand Crus. Grand Cru is the highest classification of Burgundy wines, representing less than 1% of the total production of Burgundy. Grand Cru red wines are made from pinot noir grapes and many argue that these wines are the best in the world. Since Kurniawan’s arrest, other of his Grand Cru counterfeits have turned up, resulting in multi-million dollar lawsuits.

Old wine bottles
Old bottles of Grand Cru.

In the case of the recent Hong Kong auction, the questionable Romanée-Conti exhibited some surprising idiosyncrasies. First, the bottle’s label was handwritten. Second, the bottle appeared to be made from 19th-century glass, which was no longer in use in 1924. Third, the wax capsule protecting the cork was obviously not the original. When Don Cornwell, an LA-based attorney, noticed the inconsistencies, he posted an extensive warning about why he believed the bottle to be a fake. After receiving repeated warnings from Mr. Cornwell, Acker withdrew the bottle from its catalog. 

In a recent article, covering the scandal, W. Blake Gray, US editor of wine-searcher, noted that in Acker’s bio for Kurniawan they claimed that the young collector had spent “years acquiring the best of the best.” This time, Acker’s Hong Kong catalog stated that the consignor “has always had a taste for the best… always buys from the most significant collections at auction, those where he feels the provenance is top-notch”.

I find it astonishing that wine collectors are happy to spend enormous sums on wines when the provenance of that wine fails to clearly identify its owner. Buyers simply rely on the auction house to have done the proper due diligence. Yet, the auction house is hardly an uninterested bystander to the sale, taking a 6% cut from the final profits. When Gray contacted Acker in June with questions about the suspected fraud, they stood by the wine’s heritage, naming two of the bottle’s previous owners, neither of which happened to be the current owner. There seems to be so much subterfuge in this business that even experienced journalists like Gray are unable to truly verify a given wine’s authenticity. Novelist turned wine columnist Jay McInerney suggests that many wine buyers are more than happy to pay for their illusions and don’t care that much about legitimacy.

Koch’s Vendetta

Billionaire Bill Koch
Bill Koch

As I wrote last year, billionaire Bill Koch was one of Kurniawan’s many victims. A wine collector with over 40,000 bottles, Koch took such trickery personally. When he discovered dubious bottles among his stock, he assembled a crack team of private investigators to gather information on Kurniawan and other potential counterfeiters. The cost of the operation is purported to exceed the value of Koch’s entire collection by $20 million. It’s safe to say, Bill Koch was the wrong person to mess with.

In 2011, Koch filed a lawsuit against Royal Wine Merchants, Ltd., again hoping to recapture money spent on counterfeits. Just before the case went to trial, in 2014, the two parties reached a settlement. The court order prevents Royal Wine Merchants from ever directly or indirectly selling, causing to be sold, offering for sale, consigning, or distributing “Certain Fine and Rare Wine”. This includes any container of wine purported to have a vintage earlier than 1976, or priced above $2500/bottle, or priced above $5,000/magnum.

However, last month, Don Cornwell, the same LA-attorney who denounced the Hong Kong offering, noticed several bottles for sale on Royal’s website that violated the court order. What’s more, Cornwell believes many of the bottles are potential counterfeits.

Wine is for Drinking

Pouring a glass of red wine

I know practically nothing about wine collecting other than the little I’ve learned from writing these posts centered on Kurniawan. But apparently, trying to put an end to fraudulent wine deals is a bit like playing whack-a-mole. Perhaps naively, I’m glad to know that I’ll never be in a position where I feel compelled to spend time, energy, and money on a hunt for someone who has sold me a bad bottle of wine.

My sister-in-law has a saying that she coined at a young age, “candy is for eating, not for saving”. It’s become a family-wide meme. After completing the research for this post, my latest culinary motto fittingly extends the concept to the consumption of wine.

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About Carol A. Seidl

Serial software entrepreneur, writer, French to English translator, mother, and lover of: books, travel, history, cultures, art, cooking, fitness, nature.

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