Sour grapes: catching the man who defrauded the wine industry for millions
The incredible story of how Rudy Kurniawan fooled the world.Peter Iantorno January 19, 2015
It was the perfect crime: over a period of up to 12 years, Rudy Kurniawan cheated some of America's wealthiest people out of millions of dollars, and earned his place in the Los Angeles high life in the process. And the best part about the elaborate con? Most of the people scammed never even realised, and those who did were too embarrassed to make a fuss.
Born in Indonesia to Chinese parents, Kurniawan was an unlikely con artist, but ever since he attended California State University in the late 1990s, he began to take an interest in wine and quickly realised that there was money to be made in the industry - a lot of money.
He started small, attending as many wine tastings as he could afford, honing his palate and showing quite a flair for deducing the identities of fine wines. From there he graduated into buying his own wine and, clearly being bankrolled by someone (to this day, it's still not clear exactly who), Kurniawan began purchasing vast quantities of expensive wines and hosting decadent parties where he'd generously share these rare vintages with a select guest list.
He was the toast of the town, with established wine producers, critics and all the big hitters of the wine-buying industry swooning over his huge array of bottles and extreme generosity in sharing them. At one event he even brought out two cases of extremely rare 1945 Romanée-Conti, which he claimed he'd bought for $2 million, earning him the nickname, Dr Conti.
It was at one of these parties that Kurniawan met John Kapon, who was looking to take his family’s wine shop, Acker Merrall & Condit, into the big-money field of wine auctions. And it just so happened that Kurniawan, who had previously only been interested in buying wine, now wanted to offload a few bottles of his extensive collection, so the two could help each other.
In January 2005, Acker held a huge auction of Kurniawan's wine dubbed "The Cellar". Over two days, 1,742 lots brought in $10.6 million. Nine months later, they held another even bigger auction, this time selling 2,310 lots for a world-record $24.7 million. Suddenly Acker was the major player it wanted to be and Kurniawan was $35 million richer, using his windfall to buy artwork, exotic cars and an $8 million mansion in Bel Air.While all seemed well, a few dissenting voices had started to appear, after inconsistencies were found with a few of the bottles sold. For example, some 1923 Roumier Bonnes-Mares was included in the first auction, yet the domain was only founded in 1924. However, even mistakes as blatant as that are easily overlooked and put down to a rouge bottle in the batch in the romantic world of fine wine collecting.
And there was no reason to doubt Kurniawan. He was spending up to $1 million a month at auction and had a reputation as one of the most respected wine connoisseurs in the country, so why would he be interested in fakes? He must have bought a fake my mistake, most people supposed.
The real trouble for Kurniawan began when prolific wine collector Bill Koch decided to conduct a stock take of his 43,000-bottle cellar, checking for counterfeits. He'd been a big buyer at both Acker auctions, and it turned out that at least seven bottles worth up to $1 million were shown to be likely fakes.As the noose tightened around Kurniawan's neck, his seemingly endless source of funds began to dry up, and due to his lavish lifestyle and the number of returned bottles that Acker had to refund and then pass the cost back to Kurniawan, he found himself in debt to the tune of $11.5 million.
By now Kapon must have suspected something was amiss, but the beauty of the scam was that he was so invested in Kurniawan's innocence, he couldn't blow the whistle on him for fear for affecting his own business and implicating himself.
Although his reputation had taken a bit of a bashing, Kurniawan was still able hold sales with Acker, but on April 25, 2008, he made one mistake too many, when he consigned 22 lots of Clos St. Denis Burgundy from 1945 and 1959 to auction. This was low-profile compared to his previous sales, but the only trouble was that that particular wine had only started being made from the Eighties, and unfortunately for Kurniawan, Laurent Ponsont, the maker of the coveted Burgundy, happened to be present. “It’s Burgundy,” Kurniawan told a reporter after the auction. “Sometimes sh*t happens.” But from then on, he was under a microscope, and Kurniawan's tangle of lies was starting to unravel.
Things got worse when Koch, having uncovered yet more fakes he'd bought from Kurniawan, filed a lawsuit against him. This was a huge blow, but the final nail in the coffin came when it came out that Kurniawan had been living in America illegally on a student visa since 2003, and the FBI had been building its own case against him.
On the morning of March 8, 2009, a team of FBI agents swarmed around Kurniawan's house as he slept. As his hands were put in cuffs and he was led into the squad car, officers swept through his home. What they found was a veritable production lab that would put most distilleries to shame.
Hundreds of printed vintage-style labels, corks and empty bottles, pots of sealing wax and glue, racks full of cheap Napa Valley wine and even hand-written recipes for blends of Burgundy ready to be replicated. The game was well and truly up.
Of course, Kurniawan didn't have a leg to stand on, and although it took until December 2013 for the case to reach trial, he was eventually found guilty of fraud, and in July 2014 was sentenced to 10 years in prison and ordered to pay $20 million in forefeit, plus $28.4 million in restitution.
Although Kurniawan is now behind bars and is likely to stay there until at least 2020, he'll always be remembered as the man who fooled an entire industry but ultimately let his greed get the better of him. If it wasn't for those few careless mistakes, he could still be living the high life.