Renowned wine collector Rudy Kurniawan lied and prevaricated about the origin of fake vintages he tried to auction, a French expert told the New York fraud trial on Thursday.
The 37-year-old Kurniawan, once considered one of the top five wine collectors in the world, faces up to 40 years in jail if convicted of wire and postal fraud.
Prosecutors say he sold ordinary wine that he blended in his kitchen "laboratory" and re-bottled to masquerade as vintage wines worth thousands of dollars.
Laurent Ponsot, of the leading Burgundy estate Domaine Ponsot, said he was alerted by email two days before an April 2008 auction in New York where 97 purported bottles of Domaine Ponsot were to be sold for $440,500–$602,000.
"He was asking, 'since when are you producing Clos Saint-Denis?'" said Ponsot, referring to his friend. "Why are you asking?" Ponsot replied.
He was told that the auction included bottles of Clos Saint-Denis from 1945 and 1949. "It is an appellation we started in 1982," Ponsot told the jury.
He contacted John Kapon, the CEO of Acker Merrall & Condit, demanding that the wines be withdrawn. Unsure whether the auction house would follow through, he flew to New York.
Ponsot told how he arrived at the auction 10 minutes into proceedings. "The wines were there, in the room," he said. The acclaimed producer got them withdrawn from sale at the last minute.
Kurniawan, wearing an impeccable grey suit, sat expressionless in court, chewing on mints as Ponsot spoke.
Several of the bottles were produced in court and Ponsot pointed out the forgeries as he examined them.
"This one is very obvious," he said. "Clos Saint-Denis, and it says 1945. This cannot exist. And a label from Nicolas? We never sold to Nicolas."
As for a Clos de la Roche 1929: bottling of that wine only began in the 1930s, Ponsot said as the jurors took notes.
Ponsot said he had lunch with Kurniawan the day after the auction and asked him where he had got the Domaine Ponsot wine. "I saw him watching his plate, saying, 'I don't know, I buy so many bottles.' I found it bizarre."
Ponsot asked him again by email in May 2008. Kurniawan responded on June 5, giving him the name "Pak Hendra in Asia."
Ponsot said he discovered that Pak is the equivalent of "Mister" and that Hendra is a very common name in Indonesia.
In July, he invited Kurniawan to lunch in Los Angeles.
"I wanted to know more," he told the court. Kurniawan wrote out two telephone numbers on a slip of paper saying they were in Jakarta. One was a fax number and the other for a local airline company.
Ponsot saw Kurniawan again in May 2009 in Los Angeles, asking him for more details. "He promised he would send me the details the next day; I am still waiting," Ponsot said.
After allegedly trying to sell more dubious wine at auction in London via an intermediary in 2012, Kurniawan was arrested at his home in Arcadia in the suburbs of Los Angeles in March that year.
Two other leading Burgundy producers, Christophe Roumier and Aubert de Villaine of Domaine Romanée-Conti, followed Ponsot into the witness box.
Roumier also testifed to forgeries, including a 1923 bottle of grand cru Domaine Roumier Bonne-Mares that he said was an obvious fake. He told the jury the wine had not been created until 1924.
De Villaine, who is co-owner of one of the world's most prestigious estates, was invited to look at various labels found at Kurniawan's home.
"It is extraordinary to see that number of labels for wines that have completely disappeared," he told the court. "I never had so many in my hand."
After the hearing, de Villaine said he hoped for a guilty verdict. He added that although the Kurniawan bottles were sophisticated fakes, even more sophisticated counterfeits had appeared in Europe over the last two years.
Roumier said that something had to be done. "This case isn't unique," he told AFP.
Ponsot said in an interview with Wine-Searcher that he had to question Kurniawan and investigate further when he discovered the young collector was trying to sell fake bottles of his family's wine.
"I was not aggressive with him," Ponsot said. "I didn't know at that time if he was a fake. I suspected he was a victim, buying fake bottles and then trying to sell them. It's not nice, but it's not as bad as forging them yourself."
However, said Ponsot, "I understood at a certain point that he was a crook."
Ponsot probed Kurniawan's dealings for two years before the FBI contacted him to ask what he knew about forgeries of Ponsot wine.
"They already had good stuff, but I had a little more, and I was happy to share," said the winemaker.
"It was important that he stop doing that," Ponsot said. "If I could say to him, 'Look, you're a bad boy. Stop,' we would not be here today. I'm not happy to see Rudy Kurniawan in prison. I am satisfied the system is stopped."