Fraud on a jaw-dropping scale: how wine-taster Rudy Kurniawan was sniffed out

Fraud on a jaw-dropping scale: how wine-taster Rudy Kurniawan was sniffed out World Date August 24, 2014 (1) Read later Henry Samuel Twitter submit to reddit Email article Print

watches Lived a lavish lifestyle: Rudy Kurniawan. Photo: Los Angeles Times

swiss replica watches For years he used his reputation as one of the world's most perceptive wine-tasters to sell what he said were some of the best vintages ever produced - raking in tens of millions of dollars in the process.

best replica watches With the proceeds, he bought luxury cars, designer watches and clothing and fine art for his mansion in Beverly Hills. He also made extravagant purchases of expensive wine for himself.

replica omega watches But there was a crucial difference between the bottles Rudy Kurniawan bought to stock his own cellar and those he sold to his unsuspecting clients: most of the latter were fakes, produced from a basement laboratory in one of his homes.

rolex replica watches Jaw-dropping fraud: FBI agents remove evidence from Rudy Kurniawan's home. Photo: MCT

best replica watches Earlier this month, the California-based collector behind what may be the biggest wine fraud in history was sentenced to 10 years in prison, fined $US20 million ($21.5 million) and ordered to pay a further $US28 million in compensation to his victims.


Never before had such a severe punishment been meted out for such a crime. But for the Frenchman who first detected Kurniawan's swindle and relentlessly pursued the 37-year-old con man for almost half a decade, even that is not enough.

"Twenty years would have been more satisfactory, considering how he has sullied the image and integrity of the wine appellations of Burgundy, Bordeaux and beyond," said Laurent Ponsot, in his first interview since the sentence was handed down by a federal judge in New York.

Jackie Chan hailed Rudy Kurniawan as a genius. Photo: Getty Images

"Kurniawan gave the entire planet the impression that falsifying wine can make you a whole lot of money, so the sentence had to be very, very severe."

Mr Ponsot's own estate, which was founded in 1872 at the northern end of the Cote d'Or and produces 12 grand cru wines, is among the most illustrious in Burgundy.

His personal crusade against Kurniawan began on April 25, 2008, as the New York auction house Acker Merrall & Condit was selling a host of fabulous wines, including two bottles of 1959 Dom Perignon rose that had once belonged to the Shah of Iran. Also on sale were 97 Ponsot bottles from Kurniawan's cellar, valued at more than $US600,000.

Unbeknown to the sellers, Mr Ponsot had flown across the Atlantic to the auction after a tip-off that the consignment included one bottle of 1929 Ponsot Clos de la Roche, which the domain did not produce under its own label until 1934.

Also for sale were 38 bottles of another Ponsot grand cru, Clos Saint-Denis, from years up to 1971 - even though the winery only started making Clos Saint-Denis in 1982.

After a few words from Mr Ponsot, the suspect bottles were withdrawn and over a lunch meeting the next day the winemaker found Kurniawan evasive about where he had bought the fake bottles.

"I knew he was a crook from the moment I set eyes on him," said Mr Ponsot. "He was ill at ease, stared at his plate and wouldn't meet my gaze."

But it was to take years for Mr Ponsot to win the justice he sought - and up to €150,000 ($213,000) in fees for private investigators.

Kurniawan spent millions on lavish parties and tastings where genuine top-grade vintages were served beside fakes, and was hailed as a genius by his customers - such as the actor Jackie Chan, who reportedly once stood on a chair holding a rare jeroboam of Chateau Petrus and shouted: "Rudy, you are the best!"

Mr Ponsot's breakthrough came when he joined forces with the FBI's art theft unit whose agents raided Kurniawan's home in Arcadia, Los Angeles, in March 2012.

In the basement they discovered a fraud factory on a jaw-dropping scale: strewn around it were hundreds of bottles and thousands of fake labels for some of the most prestigious wines of Burgundy and Bordeaux.

Kurniawan would mix cheaper, more common wines, pour them into old bottles with fake labels and aged corks and then fraudulently sell them to credulous clients.

Mr Ponsot said: "It's surprisingly easy to fool people who are happy to pay huge amounts of money to find the impossible, such as mythical bottles.

"You only have to find one that appears great to get people hooked."

The deception was made easier by the fact that earlier generations of wine producers never expected to be targeted by criminals so took no steps to make fraud harder.

"There was no regularity, there was no protection at all," said Mr Ponsot.

"Between the wars, for instance, the paper used for labels would change for each vintage. There were cases of genuine bottles with spelling mistakes. Kurniawan played on all this."

Mr Ponsot told the trial that, in his estimation, some 80 per cent of pre-1980 bottles put up for auction from among Burgundy's top four domains, including his own, must be fakes.

He hopes that the Kurniawan case will mark the end of the "golden era of fake wine" for top grade vintages, as auction houses run ever tougher checks and the most prestigious wine domains step up measures to protect their wines.

But he warned that some collectors who bought Kurniawan bottles would not want to admit that they had been swindled, and may lie low before putting them back on the market in five to 10 years' time. "We need to remain very vigilant," he said.

Now Mr Ponsot has set his sights on two people he insists were the swindler's "accomplices", and whom he intends to unmask in a book he hopes will be published later this year.

One was a figure with deep knowledge of the complex Burgundy wine world, he said, but he was not yet ready to reveal their identity.

Once the book was finished, he insisted, his wine sleuthing days would be over. "It's not my profession and I've done my bit," he said. "I need to get back to making wine."

Sunday Telegraph, London

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