In 2012 when the FBI broke into Rudy Kurniawan’s house, in a quiet suburb of Los Angeles, they were confronted with bags of fake wine labels, old bottles, corks and recipes on how to “make” expensive and rare vintages of Bordeaux by mixing younger and cheaper vintages of the same wine with exuberant Californian Cabernet Sauvignons. Whilst still in his early twenties, having arrived in the US some years earlier from Hong Kong, Kurniawan broke all records by selling through Acker Merrall & Condit over $24,000,000 of fake wine in a single auction. Over a period of ten years it is estimated that he sold at least $1,000,000 of wine each month and that there are still hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of his fake wines ready to be sold in the worlds auction houses once Kurniawan is safely forgotten.
Kurniawan’s story is straight out of a Hollywood movie except that our hero is now serving a ten-year prison sentence after being found guilty of what’s almost certainly biggest wine fraud of all time. How did this Pinot-loving, Indonesian student in his early twenties manage to fool millionaire collectors and some of the most trusted auction houses in the international wine trade?
The most expensive wines are so rarely drunk that few can claim to be experts able to tell if a particular wine is fake by taste alone. Those who knew Kurniawan claim that he had a very perceptive palate and was intelligent enough to move seamlessly from the easy-drinking wine world he knew to the complex world of Burgundy. Soon he was talking in equal terms with hardened collectors. It is easy to imagine that the soft spoken, highly likeable Kurniawan (not his real name), whose family had been convicted of high level frauds in Hong Kong, would have quickly perceived Burgundy and Bordeaux as a means of making easy money. After all he would have seen collectors pay tens of thousands for single bottles rarely drunk but sold on to other collectors in a never-ending chain.
Kurniawan, who lived the good life of a rich young man with expensive houses and driving Ferraris, soon established himself as a significant buyer of top-notch Burgundy and Bordeaux. He bought so much of Domaine de la Romanee Conti he became known as Dr. Conti. His tastings and generosity with his wines soon became legendary, and gave Kurniawan a platform to show off his extensive knowledge of fine wines. As a collector, he also sold wines both at auction and privately. Nobody thought to question his nebulous background nor meteoric rise from easy-drinking wine beginner to fine wine world expert. Once his reputation was established as a rich collector and connoisseur the rest was relatively simple. He would buy poor vintages and decant them into old bottles of better vintages worth tens of thousands more. He would also mix older and younger vintages of Bordeaux “producing” large quantities of wine such the legendary 1947 Cheval Blanc.
Kurniawan’s recipe for 1945 Mouton-Rothschild was 50% 1988 Ch. Cos d’Estournel, 25% 1990 Ch. Palmer, and 25% 2000 California Cabernet. Most wine geeks would love to taste this fake!
It is difficult to imagine he was operating on his own. He must have had help faking labels, corks and obtaining large quantities of old bottles. Kurniawan would have still be selling fraudulent wine today had he not made a crucial error leading to his eventual arrest and imprisonment.
When Laurent Ponsot was told that bottles of Clos Saint-Denis 1945 from his Burgundy family estate were imminently up for auction in New York he immediately flew there arriving at the auction house 15 minutes into the sale. He managed to persuade Acker Merrall & Condit to remove the bottles from the sale on the basis that his family only started producing Clos Saint-Denis in 1982. At Kurniawan’s trial Ponsot reckoned that as much as 80% of fine Burgundy for sale in the world’s auction houses could be fake!
It is easy to understand why fraudsters are attracted to fine wines. Here is a list of the world’s most expensive wines, compiled using Wine Searcher. I have only listed wines which are currently on sale and not individual bottles of historical rare vintages which can achieve astronomical prices.
- Henri Jayer Richebourg Grand Cru. Red Burgundy.
Henri Jayer made superlative wines I am told. His vineyards around Vosne Romanee in Burgundy included Cros Parantoux and Richebourg. Jayer died in 2006. Expect to pay upwards of £5000 per bottle for his wines.
- Domaine de la Romanee-Conti Romanee-Conti Grand Cru,
Cotes du Nuit. Red Burgundy
Burgundy most famous bio dynamic producer. Other wines include La Tache, Echezeaux and Grand Echezeaux. I was lucky to be invited to a tasting of these wines many years ago before they became prohibitively expensive. My enduring memory is how easy drinking they were. Average Price $15,700 per bottle.
- Egon Muller Scharzhoberger Riesling Trockenbeerenauslese. Mosel, Germany
This wine is produced only in exceptional years. Intensely sweet and complex. Each grape is picked individually when noble rot has affected the grape. Described by Jancis Robinson as a tight rope between sweetness and acidity. Average price $9800 per bottle.
- Domaine Leroy Musigny Grand Cur, Cotes du Nuit. Red Burgundy
Owner Madame Lalou Bizet-Leroy is said to love her vines more than people. She has a large shareholding in Domaine de la Romanee Conti but was thrown from of the Board of Directors after a major row. Her vines are very low yielding and she has run her Domaine bio dynamically since 1988. Her wines are said to be near perfect and some vintages fetching in excess of $30,000 per bottle.
- Domaine Leflaive Montrachet Grand Cru. Cote de Beaune.
Montrachet is the most famous white wine vineyard in the world. Leflaive is one of the most exalted producers here and his wine can fetch over $20,000 per bottle. Anyone for Chardonnay?
- Domaine Georges and Cristophe Roumier, Musigny Grand Cru. Red Burgundy.
We stay in Burgundy and return to Le Musigny vineyard. Roumier produces one of the finest expressions of Pinot. His production is organic and uses no pesticides. Expect to pay north of $6000.
- Domaine de la Romanee-Conti, Montrachet, Grand Cru Chardonnay.
Cote de Beaune.
Back with Romanee-Conti and back to Montrachet. The name and vineyard guarantees big spenders will flock to buy these wines. Expect to pay north of $6000.
- Domaine Leroy Chambertin Grand Cru. Red Burgundy.
Another Leroy Pinot Noir. This time from the Grand Cru Chambertin Vineyard.
Very rare. In some years only a couple of barrels are made. Its provenance and rarity assures high prices. North of $4000 per bottle.
- Chateau Petrus-Pomerol Bordeux.
By rights the first twenty most expensive wine are all Burgundy or German. However I thought I would include another wine which regularly faked. The Petrus vineyard was bought by a passing Belgian from the owner’s widow for half the price of a one bedroom flat in Gibraltar! It’s the darling of Hollywood stars and celebrities. Highly collectable. It is a great wine nonetheless. $3000.
- Le Pin-Pomerol Red Bordeux.
Another Pomerol. Small production. Virtually unknown a few years ago. $3000.