Rudy Kurniawan, perhaps one of the most prolific dealers of allegedly faked rare and expensive wine in recent years, was indicted last month by a federal grand jury in New York City. Kurniawan was charged with four counts of mail and wire fraud, including selling counterfeit wines. In his home, FBI agents found thousands of wine labels for many of the most expensive wines in the world, such as Domaine de la Romanée-Conti and Pétrus, according to Assistant United States Attorney Jason Hernandez.
But what actually went into Kurniawan’s old bottles with fake labels? According to federal prosecutors, the bottles he put up for sale would have been worth $1.3 million if genuine. (Time may show that the actual numbers are much greater.) Because of the hefty price tag, I wondered all along, what exactly he was putting in those bottles, which were often empties he had previously opened for friends.
Based on some tasting notes from producers who had tasted Kurniawan's wines, it was reasonable to conclude that the wine was decent or even high-quality California wine, often mixed with Old World counterparts for typicity (to boost the degree to which it reflected its varietal origins). These bottles were sometimes rare but not swill.
The indictment reveals I was on the right track. It gives details of Kurniawan's home laboratory, where he allegedly created the counterfeit wines. It describes him as a master of concocting fakes by mixing and matching wines “that mimicked the taste, color and character of rare and expensive wines.” Kurniawan is said to have used newer wines as well as older ones from less valuable vintages. I presume there was quite a lot of blending going on, and not only with other wines.
For example, Kurniawan was allegedly planning to use a recent wine from Napa, worth approximately $100, to create a 1940s-1960s Pomerol or Graves Bordeaux. This Napa wine was found in his home with the notation “40s-60s Pomerol/Graves.” Kurniawan also had a recent California pinot noir, worth approximately $250, that he had marked as “40s/50s DRC,” probably referring to Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, the most highly regarded winery in Burgundy.
Why would Kurniawan use California wine to fake old rare French wine? Perhaps it was his way of ensuring mass appeal to tasters not familiar with truly old and rare wines. The taste of old French wine is appreciated by significantly fewer people than the taste of recent California wine. Kurniawan probably used California wines so that when the fakes were opened and tasted, they were more vibrant, appealing and enjoyable to a wider audience than an old French wine would be. If by chance the fake bottles were opened and challenged, he would dismiss them as “spoiled bottles or aberrations,” according to the indictment, but in a way he was counting on people to enjoy drinking them and provide positive tasting notes and accounts.
Remember that in the end, Kurniawan was arrested only after he made some major labeling mistakes, not because somebody tasted the wine and identified it as fake. The federal complaint lists his mistakes as follows:
1) Creating a 1929 domain-bottled Domaine Ponsot, when Ponsot didn't bottle its own wine until 1934 from a completely different vineyard and with completely different labels.
2) Creating a 1945 Ponsot Clos Saint-Denis, when Ponsot didn't make wine from this vineyard until 1982.
3) Creating fake DRC (Romanée-Conti) with incorrect label details.
4) Creating a fake DRC (La Tâche) with incorrect label details such as an accent mark used only after 1976.
Kurniawan's case is assigned to United States District Judge Richard M. Berman. He's no stranger to cases about wine. A decade ago, he ruled that New York State could not prohibit out-of-state wines from being sent directly to consumers (Swedenburg et al. v Kelly).
Time will tell what tactics or tattle-tales Kurniawan and his defense team may use to fight the charges, or at least mitigate the punishment if he is found guilty. If he is convicted on all counts, he could be sentenced to 100 years' imprisonment. Many think he is likely to get about 100 months. Surely he was not alone in what he did, but whether he will roll is yet to be seen.
* Maureen Downey is a foremost expert on wine fraud, and is the owner of San Francisco-based Chai Consulting, a firm which advises collectors of fine wine. In the coming months Maureen will respond to reader queries to do with collecting, cellaring and authentication. Please email your detailed query, and Maureen's responses will be posted on Wine-Searcher.