In the latest issue of Vanity Fair, Michael Steinberger writes a fascinating story about Rudy Kurniawan, a 31-year-old Indonesian transplant living in the United States and producing counterfeit wine. “A Vintage Crime” is a story of a man who sold $35 million worth of wine in 2006, yet just a few months later was begging for loans. A slow rise but a strong fall, as he now faces up to 80 years in jail.
A bit of background:
Beginning in the early 2000s, demand and prices for the rarest wines shot up rapidly, as did the potential payoff from selling fakes. In 2000, wine auctions worldwide grossed $92 million; by last year, that figure had quintupled, to $478 million. The buying frenzy was driven in large part by young collectors in the United States. In contrast to the more buttoned-down Thurston Howell types who had once dominated the auction scene, these new players were distinguished by their insatiable acquisitiveness and eagerness to flaunt their trophy bottles.
No one moved the market more than a twentysomething West Coast collector named Rudy Kurniawan. He first surfaced on the wine scene in the early 2000s. He was reportedly the scion of a wealthy ethnic-Chinese family from Indonesia. In an interview with the Los Angeles Times, in 2006, he explained that Kurniawan was an Indonesian surname his late father had given him to protect his identity. He said that his family had business interests in Indonesia and China, but refused to elaborate.
How Kurwinian’s forgery binge began: by getting the empty bottles of the super-expensive wine bottles:
According to John Kapon, he and Kurniawan met at a wine dinner in Los Angeles. In October 2004, they and some acquaintances went on a four-day binge at Cru that became an emblematic moment for the brash new wine culture that had taken hold. By the end of the last evening, the group had consumed a murderers’ row of legendary wines—1945 Mouton Rothschild, 1961 Jaboulet Hermitage La Chapelle, 1971 La Tâche, 1964 Romanée-Conti, 1978 Guigal Côte-Rôtie La Mouline—and racked up a total tab that one participant said was more than $250,000. Kurniawan paid for the whole thing with his American Express Black Card. He also made a curious request of Cru’s staff: he asked that the restaurant send him all of the empty bottles. He made the same request on subsequent visits to Cru, and between 2004 and 2006 the restaurant sent him box after box of empty bottles.
On Kurniawan’s eccentricities:
He often slept until the afternoon and was maddeningly disorganized, habitually arriving late for engagements and seldom paying bills on time. He also had eccentricities: Wilfred Jaeger, a Bay Area wine collector, says that Kurniawan had a habit of falling asleep at tastings; he would suddenly nod off for 20 or 30 minutes before waking up and resuming drinking. Kurniawan’s mother lived with him in Arcadia, and he sometimes brought her to tastings.
Upon his capture:
In addition to thousands of fake labels for wines such as Romanée-Conti, there were dozens of rubber stamps marked with vintages and winery names; a gadget for inserting corks into bottles; California wines whose labels bore handwritten notes suggesting that they would be passed off as Bordeaux; and dozens of bottles in various stages of being converted to counterfeits.
A thoroughly engrossing read. If anything, this story reinforced my belief in how fickle the rare-wine market truly is.