The Greatest Wine Fraud
By: Ruhika Dhamani
In the early 2000s, a young face made an appearance in America's elite wine circles. He seemed to have neverending cash, alongside a collection of the world's rarest wine that oenophiles had only ever dreamt of. Clearly, it was too good to be true. Rudy Kurniawan was carrying out the world's greatest wine fraud, only to be brought down by a relentless billionaire, a french vintner, and the FBI.
Rudy Kurniawan, born Zen Wang Huang in Jakarta, Indonesia, in 1976, came to the United States on a student visa and eventually moved to Los Angeles by 2001. There he began developing an obsession for California wines and soon shifted his interest to French burgundy wine. Over time, according to a shop owner by the name of Kyle Smith, Kurniawan bought close to $500K worth of wine solely in his first year of visiting the store , with each bottle of wine ranging from $400 - $500. One might ask themselves: what was he doing with so much wine? According to evidence found once Kurniawan was arrested, he had been keeping detailed notes on how each wine tasted, which became relevant over time.
Soon Kurniawan was invited to LA's elite tasting group which consisted of Hollywood directors, tech entrepreneurs and even real estate tycoons. This specific group was often referred to as the "12 angry men"; these men had unfathomable amounts of money which they loved to spend on wine. The men were quite fond of Kurniawan, not only because of his wealth, but also because of his skill; in the wine-tasting community, although money is valued, skill is highly valued as well. Kurniawan was said to have a remarkable pallet, so much so that with a single sip of wine he was able to pinpoint every aspect of that wine ranging from the year to the vineyard in which it was produced. Aside from that, these men greatly valued Kurniawan's charismatic persona.
As Kuriawan became a part of the angry men", he began attending auctions with them. The angry men could easily source their wines more discreetly, but they opted for auctions, solely for the purpose that they would be public enough to the point where everyone would know how much money they had spent without them having to mention it. At these auctions, Kurniawan was notorious for being persistent with his bids; it was alleged that he would raise his paddle and refuse to lower it until he had won.
Eventually, Rudy Kurniawan made a name for himself in the wine community and was recognized not only for his wealth but for his astounding collection of the world's rarest wines, as a result being named "The King of Rare Wines", or as he preferred, "Dr Conti" as a homage to his favourite wine: Domaine de lá Romanée-Conti. Now it was time for him to join the auction community. Kurniawan became close friends with John Kapon, the owner and heir to the largest auction house in the world. Together they decided to feature some of Kurniawons wine in a collection named "The Cellar". This first auction made close to $10.6 million, where wines that hadn't been seen in years were being auctioned off. Soon a second auction was held where close to $24.7 million were made, but these auctions would soon result in Kurniawan's scheme being pulled apart by vengeful men.
At these auctions, Kurniawan managed to raise a few eyebrows in the wine community, especially to those closely observing the wines he had sold. Kurniawan had sold 10 bottles of 1945 Château Pétrus, a vintage wine which is known for how rare it is, since only 600 bottles were produced and only a few dozen were known to exist around the globe. Many began to question the authenticity of Kurniawan's wines, since it was highly unlikely that he would have managed to get his hands on ten bottles of extremely rare wine. In a 2007 Christies auction, a lot of Kurniawan’s 1982 Château Le Pin was removed after being deemed fake by the company. In 2008, when word had gotten around about Kurniawan's fake wine, Laurent Ponsont, a french vineyard owner, decided to attend one of his auctions where Ponsont publicly deemed over $600K worth of wine counterfeit which was then withdrawn from the Kapon auction house. Now the “king of wines” was losing credibility.
With all the news of fake wines circulating the market, a billionaire in Palm beach Florida by the name of Bill Koch, inheritor of one of America's Largest fortunes , caught wind of the news. Bill Koch was also a wine enthusiast and had spent close to 1 million dollars on a few bottles of Thomas Jefferson's wine. In a later interview when he was asked why he spent so much money on wine, he stated that he already had everything money could buy, but the fact that he was able to consume wine which he considered to be history meant that that same piece of history would be alive within him. One might ask themselves, why didn't he just spend some money on art if he valued history that much? And the simple answer to that is: he already had. After having heard of the various counterfeit wines circulating the market he decided to get all of his 44 thousand bottles of wine kept underneath his 45K square foot mansion authenticated. He contacted his private investigator Brad Goldstein and asked to get some of his wine authenticated, and soon a bottle of fake wine was found. But what astounded the investigators was the fact that everything about the wine looked real, however it had traces of Elmer's glue on it, which was not created until after the wine had been made. This small discovery then led to Koch's whole cellar being checked and tested bottle by bottle. This investigation revealed that there was about $4 million worth of fake wine found, so Koch asked Brad to track down where these wines were bought, since he was not the one at the auctions, it was his representative. Turns out most of the wines came from Acker auction house, yet they were having trouble finding where exactly this wine came from since auction houses are simply middlemen.
Around this time Laurent Ponsont who previously deemed Kurniawans wine counterfeit decided to do some further research regarding the root of these counterfeit wines since he took them as a personal matter. Eventually, Ponsont got to Kurniawan, and once confronted with the counterfeit wine, Kurniawan stated that he had got them from Jakarta through an auction house called Pac Hendra. After Ponsont flew to Jakarta he found out that this was an extremely common name, which made it a dead end. Yet Ponsont inquired further and asked Kurniawan for any numbers that he had on hand for this so-called Pac Hendra. Two different phone numbers were provided, none of which led to the alleged wine seller; one of the numbers belonged to a random strip mall in Jakarta which will become relevant later on. Whilst Ponsont is doing his own digging he is unaware of the fact that Koch's private investigator is aware of Ponsont's investigation and is actually following along.
Bill Koch's private investigator looked into Rudy Kurniawan and found out that the persona he created in the wine world is completely fake. At this point, things have escalated and Kurniawan's act is being pulled apart. And so the FBI decided to get involved, and from there the investigation lasted for about three years, from 2009 - 2012. Not much was discovered until in 2012, when the FBI decided to get a search warrant for both of Kurniawan's houses where they were faced with quite a sight.
Evidence found at the apartment
Once officers entered the house, it seemed like they had walked into a forgery factory with evidence anywhere and everywhere. They found wine bottles in the sink with labels soaking off, right next to it were a corker and a corkscrew, and on the counter were empty wine bottles with chalk on them, mentioning how much of what should be mixed into it. Initially, before Kurniawan was part of the elite tasting groups, he had an obsession with California wines as previously mentioned and he was also keeping detailed tasting notes. He was now using those notes and that cheap wine to replicate burgundies. After replicating the wine, he would age fake labels and coat the bottles in wax and make them look identical to the original. Of course with this, Rudy Kurniawan was arrested.
As previously mentioned, the actual origins of Kurniawan's money were unknown, after buying countless bottles of wine at auctions causing the market to inflate by close to 62% , then selling those bottles for much higher, it still does not answer how and where the money to initially buy those wine bottles came from. Rudy Kurniawan had introduced his brother to his elite wine circle and it is alleged that this money came from his brother, not because his brother is an extremely wealthy businessman, but because it is speculated that his brother is one of the suspects who conducted one of Jakarta's biggest bank heists, with about $780 million stolen by three men who are yet to be caught. As previously mentioned, one of the numbers given to Ponsont belonged to a random strip mall, the owner of this strip mall is suspected to be the second suspect and culprit of this bank heist.
Eventually, once the trial began Rudy Kurniawan's attorney tried to argue that the bottles found in Kurniawan’s apartment were for decorative purposes, but Rudy Kurniawan was found guilty on all counts and was sentenced to 10 years in prison. Some might argue that 10 years is quite a lot considering that some kidnapping cases result in less time, and this case was not very public either at the time at least, but it is alleged that Kurniawan had gotten involved with highly powerful people along his journey in the wine world, which then resulted in him receiving more time than he might have deserved.