A federal trial in New York is shining a harsh light on the world of vintage wines. Wine dealer Rudy Kurniawan is on trial for fraud and accused of making millions by selling counterfeit wines to unsuspecting customers.
In the indictment, Kurniawan is also known as "Dr. Conti," after one of France's greatest wines and "Mr. 47," for one of the great vintages of the 20th century. It charges that he "manufactured and attempted to manufacture counterfeit bottles of wine at his home, operating what was in effect, a counterfeit laboratory.”
Benjamin Wallace wrote about the case for New York Magazine and said that “no one really knew his background.”
“The likely things he did include blending cheaper vintages to create other vintages that he could sell for more money, taking bottles that had originally contained very expensive old wines and pouring younger or lesser wines into them.”
When he first came on to the scene in 2002, Kurniawan presented himself as a collector of rare bottles. He did wine tastings with wealthy collectors and eventually began selling wine at auction, clearing a record $24.7 million from one sale in 2006.
“I had two clients who each spent over $1 million buying wine from Rudy and they were the 'murderers row' of wines in the world. The oldest, rarest, most valuable, hardest to find,” said Jeff Smith, President, Carte du Vin Wine Cellar Management. “When they went to go and sell the wine at different auction houses including Sotheby's, Zachys and others and found that the wine was getting rejected because they had issues with either the labels of the corks or capsules, the bottles themselves.”
When the FBI raided Kurniawan's home last year, they allegedly found a sophisticated operation for corking bottles and producing fake labels.
“He did a good job of counterfeiting labels. With printing equipment today, even with home printers, you can do your own remarkable job of making a counterfeit,” Bill Edgerton, a wine appraiser and consultant who has a collection of fakes, said.
Edgerton said that while this could be described as a high-class problem for rich people, “whether or not your taste is for a $10 bottle or a $1000 bottle, you deserve to get a genuine glass of wine.”
Kurniawan's attorney is arguing that his client was duped and that he is also a victim. If convicted, he could face 40 years behind bars. As for the buyers of his phony wine, they're out of luck.