Oh how I love a good crime story – Agatha Christie is my go-to and the first book I ever read by the Crime Queen was “Sparkling Cyanide” – A story in which the victim is poisoned while enjoying a champagne toast. Surprisingly, this did not put me off enjoying champagne at all! Great Agatha Christie books aside, wine crime is a whole other matter and can take many forms.
One of the most intriguing true stories I have come across was the story of Rudy Kurniawan. In the early 2000’s a mysterious and wealthy young man appeared on the American wine scene in a major way. Quickly becoming recognisable at wine auctions for his significant and impressive purchases, Rudy became a popular and admired figure in the wine world. He was applauded not only for his amazing cellar collection, but his genuine knowledge about wine.
Rolling in the most wealthy circles, Rudy himself amassed a great deal of money through selling his own private collection. One his favourite wines to purchase was the Domaine de la Romanée- Conti – a renowned Burgundy of exceptional quality and one of the most expensive wines in the world.
To set the scene, it was the era of the dot.com boom. There were huge amounts of money flowing to the sector and people were keen to demonstrate their wealth and status by how much they would drop on a bottle of wine. Many purchasers of Rudy’s collection were not connoisseurs themselves, but loved the idea of owning a rare and prized bottle. Through several auctions, Rudy made millions from sales of his cellar collection.
One of the more savvy buyers, Bill Koch, an American billionaire with an enviable cellar himself, became suspicious of the bottles he had purchased from Rudy. He found some discrepancies and eventually ended up hiring a private detective to follow up his concerns.
Things further unravelled for Rudy when he sold bottles of Clos St Denis from Domaine Ponsot. The vintages Rudy sold were incredibly rare, ranging from 1945 – 1971 – Quite an amazing thing when you realise that the head of the house, Laurent Ponsot noted that the family only began producing that wine in 1982!
The wine hounds were out and sniffing for what was really going on. In March of 2012, the FBI raided Rudy’s house. What they found almost beggars belief. An entire workshop set up for the most sophisticated counterfeit operation.
In 2013, Rudy Kurniawan was convicted of wine fraud and sentenced to 10 years in prison. He lost his latest appeal late last year to have the sentence reduced. It is almost incomprehensible that Rudy could have made millions of dollars of counterfeit wine on his own, but no other arrests or further investigations were undertaken.
Some commentators reflect on the severity of the punishment given and while it does seem odd that he should go down alone, my thoughts tend more to the producers who fear that their wines may never be looked at the same way again. There may be a lingering question as to their authenticity and quality, affecting their brand and credibility for years to come.
I understand why companies like Penfolds are so fiercely fighting fake wine in China. It is not just a matter of lost revenue, but the principle to defend the quality and authenticity of what is in each bottle under their label.
Rudy Kurniawan’s story is compelling and if my recounting of the story doesn’t have you hooked on finding out more, I implore you to check out the following:
- A savvy and captivating documentary called Sour Grapes – I first came across it on a long flight from Perth to Canberra and I was enthralled.
- This Guardian article does an amazing job at distilling the key facts but keeping the sense of mystery and romance of the larger than life characters in this true story
- The Billionaire’s Vinegar – a book my sister gave me for Christmas is a true story about a 1787 Château Lafite Bordeaux (supposedly owned by Thomas Jefferson) and those whose hands it passed through.
- More on the the Australian battle against counterfeit wine http://www.abc.net.au/news/rural/2018-04-03/wine-industry-targets-copycat-product-in-export-crackdown/9614282