California Drinkin’ Part II

By Linda Lee Kane.

Rudy Kurniawan was a wealthy twenty-year old kid from California with a fondness for wine when he first began rubbing elbows with the high rollers at wine auctions. As one collector remember him, he was “just a geeky kid drinking Merlot.” But Rudy quickly developed a taste for Burgundy, a far more complex realm of connoisseurship, and was soon spending a million dollars every month on wine, much of it at boozy dinners with luminaries like the wine critic Robert Parker, who found Kurniawan to be a “very sweet and generous man.” Like other wealthy collectors, Kurniawan also sold treasures from his cellar. In 2006, the auction house Acker Merrall & Condit broke records selling off thirty-five million dollars’ worth of his wines. Two years later, at the Manhattan restaurant Cru, Acker held a sale proffering more of Kurniawan’s “rare gems,” promising that they had been authenticated by “some of Burgundy’s most discerning (and difficult) connoisseurs.” The lots included bottles of the coveted Domaine Ponsot Clos Saint-Denis, from the years 1945, 1949, and 1966. The only problem, as the proprietor of the estate pointed out, was that Domaine Ponsot did not start producing that particular wine until 1982.

This was the most conspicuous sign that there was something very off about Kurniawan’s collection. As recounted in “Sour Grapes,” a documentary, many more suspicious details emerged in 2012, after F.B.I. Agents raided Kurniawan’s Italian home in a quiet suburb of LA, turning up shopping bags brimming with old corks, pristine labels bundled up like currency, and recipes for faking aged Bordeaux. It turned out that scores of bottles from Kurniawan’s cellar had been produced not by the acclaimed châteaux on their labels but by Kurniawan himself. He stockpiled empty bottles, and, with the care of a chemist, refilled them with mixtures of lesser wines blended to taste like the real thing. Two years ago, he became the first person in the United States to be convicted of wine fraud. He’s currently serving a ten-year sentence in a California prison for what is thought to be the most significant case of wine counterfeiting in history.

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Next month I’ll go into more detail about how the very wealthy Koch brothers were snookered by Kurniawan.