There are some people in the world who deserve a sharp and well-placed slap to the back of the head. Rudy Kurniawan is one of them.
Peter Hellman’s page-turner of a book, In Vino Duplicitas, tells the maddening story of Rudy Kurniawan, and the biggest wine hoax in history. It’s meticulously researched, and objectively journalistic (although I did wonder if Hellman has a bit of a man crush on Bill Koch, the energy billionaire who owns the infamously fake Jefferson Bottles).
Between 2004 and 2012, Kurniawan made at least $1.3 million selling rare and expensive wines. There was only one catch — the wines he sold were fake. Kurniawan operated out of a makeshift wine laboratory at his home in California. He mixed and blended lower priced wines with expensive wines, and then poured his “recipes” back into older, empty bottles that he picked up from various sources. He sold his counterfeit bottles at auction and through direct sales to collectors. In 2006 alone, he sold some 12,000 bottles of fake wine.
Once poured, these wines became “liars in a glass”.
A citizen of Indonesia, Kurniawan arrived in the US on a student visa in the 1990s, and attended Cal State Northridge. He was denied permanent resident status in 2001, filed an unsuccessful asylum appeal, and in 2003, a judge ordered him to leave the country. He ignored that order. Kurniawan discovered he really enjoyed wine (his epiphany wine was a 1996 Opus One), and started buying high-end Napa Cabs and Aussie Shiraz. That morphed into insatiable desire for first-growth Bordeaux, and eventually, ultra-rare, prohibitively expensive, Burgundies. Kurniawan often bragged about a shady family fortune, and claimed he received a million dollars a month in allowance, which he spent on wine.
The murky world of über-rich, rare-wine collectors is something that most of us will never experience or even understand. These are folks who think nothing of spending $10,000+ on a bottle of wine, or an equally insane amount for a wine tasting dinner. And Rudy knew — if you’re going to con, you con people with money. It’s tough for me to generate sympathy for people who have more money than sense (there’s a little schadenfreude going on here), but no one likes to be cheated, so I’m mad on principle.
So how did Kurniawan pull this off?
Well, he looks totally harmless — more like someone who should be doing math homework, and not the mastermind behind the world’s biggest wine fraud. He reminds me of the kid in high school who was desperate to sit at the cool kids table. He needed to ingratiate himself into the world of the über-rich wine collector, and he did so with charm and generosity. And it didn’t hurt that Kurniawan was exceptionally good at tasting wine — he’s described as both a wine savant, and having “a perfect pitch for wine”.
Kurniawan would often host lavish wine tasting dinners at posh southern California restaurants, opening authentic rare and expensive wines like they were white zinfandel at a 4th of July picnic. At a 2004 dinner in Manhattan, Kurniawan charged $250,000 to his AMEX card. I can’t even. For dinner and wine. All to build rapport and trust with the collectors. After the evening was over, he would instruct the restaurant staff to return all of the empty bottles and corks to him.
Hmmm. Whatcha doing with all the empties, Rudy?
I’ve purchased old(er) wine before. I bought my parents a bottle of 1964 Chateau Margaux to celebrate the 50th anniversary of my dad’s first Olympic gold medal. But I spent $200 not $20,000. Then again, I suppose my $200 is the über-rich collector’s $20,000. But, at the end of the day, buying a really old (or rare) wine is essentially gambling, and you have to decide what your tolerance for loss will be. It’s a risk.
How did he get caught? I won’t spoil the details for you. But, the skeptic in me says there’s no way Kurniawan didn’t have help. No one can know that much about the intricacies of rare Burgundies without an assist or two. And then there’s the auction houses. Were they naive or complicit? Or simply turning a blind eye? Probably all of the above. They were making money, too. And when you’re making money, you don’t upset the apple cart.
Follow the money. Just saying.
Rudy Kurniawan wasn’t the first to counterfeit wine, and he won’t be the last. The world of fine, rare wines is rife with fraud. I’m not sure you can completely separate the two — kind of like cycling and doping (I’m still mad at Lance Armstrong, btw). According to Maureen Downy, one of the world’s foremost experts in counterfeit wine, the global wine industry is worth $304 billion. The fine wine industry (wines traded on the secondary market) represents 5% of that total, or $15 billion. Downy estimates as much as 20% of the fine wine market is fake, so the value of fake wine on the market today is around $3 billion, and Downy puts Rudy’s share in that total at about $550 million.
Kurniawan has been called a conman, a master manipulator, and even a sociopath. And while he was definitely a master manipulator and a champion of flimflammery, I’m not convinced he set foot on US soil armed with an evil plan to counterfeit wines and defraud wealthy oenophiles out of millions. He wanted to sit at the cool kids table, got a spot, and made choices along the way to keep it. Spectacularly bad ones.
Rudy currently resides at Taft Correctional Institute in California. When he is released in 2021, he will be met by immigration agents, who will put him on the first flight back to Indonesia.
Play stupid games . . . win stupid prizes.
In Vino Duplicitas is an exciting, fast paced read. It’s well written and exhaustively researched (if there’s a flaw with the book, it’s that there’s too much detail). It’s a fascinating peek into the world of rare-wine collecting, and a cautionary tale for of all of us. Highly recommended.