Wine Fraudster Fleeces Wealthy

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It’s been fun to read the public comments on news media stories covering the conviction of Rudy Kurniawan for wine fraud. Kurniawan, 37, is a Californian wine collector who was found with stacks of top French wine labels in his home laboratory, corks and bottles of unlabeled wine. He was found guilty by a US jury, after less than two hours’ deliberation, of ‘mail and wire fraud’ after selling more than US$1.3 million worth of counterfeit bottles to wealthy wine collectors.

Prosecutors said Kurniawan had made millions of dollars by selling fake wine made in his home in Arcadia, California, between 2004 and 2012. They said he had produced at least 1,000 bottles of fake wine in what he called his ‘magic cellar’. The proceeds had funded his lavish lifestyle in Los Angeles. He will be sentenced on April 24.

Top French winemakers including Laurent Ponsot (tastings) of Burgundy travelled to the US to give evidence in the trial. Kurniawan’s lawyer said the trial had revealed the “don’t ask, don’t tell” culture in the high-end wine business over what was being sold.

Many of the comments posted on websites took the line that anyone stupid enough to buy such expensive bottles was fair game, and if super-wealthy people lost a lot of money, we should just have a good laugh. They seemed to ignore the fact that fraud is fraud and stealing is stealing, whether the victim is wealthy or not.

My sympathy lies with the victims, even if they were greedy and stupid. But I’ve always had the view that wine is for drinking and enjoying, and people who hoard expensive wine for display or bragging are doing it for the wrong reasons, as are those who buy expensive bottles of old Bordeaux because of the status they believe it confers on them. They are foolish and their free-spending has wrecked the market, so that genuine wine lovers can no longer afford the world’s most beautiful wines.

Fraud surrounding the rarest and most prized French wines has become so widespread in recent years that it must have seriously damaged the confidence any buyer can have in rare, aged, iconic wines. Provenance becomes vitally important.

The same day I read about Kurniawan’s conviction I read about a wine auction house boasting that it had sold a case of 1947 Chateau Cheval Blanc for an historic 131,600 euros. Cheval Blanc ‘47 just happens to be one of the most faked wines going around, but this was in its original wooden case and the bottles had been recorked at the chateau during the 1990s. Probably genuine, but not exactly value. 

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