Though we might publicly denounce it, there is something undeniably sexy about a scam. Our global gallery of pop-culture legends is littered with figures who, however you dress it up, specialised in stealing things. From Robin Hood to the Wolf of Wall Street, the roguish outlaw, unconcerned by the rules that the rest of us meekly follow, is both dangerous and desirable. Common criminals just break the law: these guys beat the system. Their stories, full of nail-biting near misses and impossible confidence, are always compelling.
It's always easier to be more sympathetic when the fraudster targets those who can afford it. No one likes to see helpless old ladies deceived by a con man. When it’s a Wall Street banker on the receiving end, however, it’s almost impossible to not find a small part of you cheering for the little guy. This dynamic is perhaps why the story of the world’s greatest wine fraudster is still toasted in certain circles.
Rudy Kurniawan had humble beginnings. Born in Jakarta in 1976, the Indonesian national moved to America in the late nineties, where he attended California State University on a student visa. After spending five years studying with his head down, he was issued with a notice by the office of US Immigration Enforcement and Customs, demanding that he submit a voluntary deportation form and leave the country. After careful consideration, Kurniawan decided to ignore the request. His life outside the law had begun.
Happily for the newly-alienated Kurniawan, his time in California coincided with the start of a technological revolution. The residents of Silicon Valley were beginning to bring in some serious money. The internet had grown into a global resource and a slew of new startups were taking advantage. Amazon, Google and eBay were in their infancy, and were all beginning to make a killing. Wall Street had taken notice and was pumping billions into the area, resulting in an emerging class of newly moneyed men and women more willing than ever to splash the cash. A would-be fraudster couldn’t ask for more fertile ground.
Like all successful tricksters, Kurniawan was able to get as far as he did because of talent. Even by the standards of the industry leaders and connoisseurs he conned, Kurniawan’s palate was phenomenal. As journalist Steve Dollar puts it: “He could identify wines blind. A dozen wines, he would nail 10 of them and get very close with two of them, and he did this repeatedly.” In the early days, when his operation was legitimate, this gift meant that he could genuinely claim to be one of California’s - if not the world’s - leading wine experts.
Upon discovering his unique skill, Kurniawan began putting together one of the most formidable cellars found anywhere on earth. Attending auctions up and down the country, he spent astonishing sums accumulating the world’s finest vintages. He showed a particular affinity to the legendary Burgundy producer Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, buying so much and advocating so strongly that he soon became known in wine circles as "Dr Conti". By 2006, he was spending as much as a million dollars a month at auctions.
Around the same time, amongst the more ostentatious and affected residents of Silicon Valley, rumours began circling of a mysterious Indonesian mogul who hosted elaborate evening soirees and wine tastings featuring the world’s rarest wines. Impossibly expensive and rarified vintages were being quaffed with abandon. Up to $200,000 was being spent in a single evening by greedy patrons. As anyone who’s ever been forced to listen to someone pretentious describes an obscure bottle will attest, for a certain type of person, wine tasting is more like a religion than a drink. A seat at one of these evenings became the hottest ticket in town.
These events helped secure Kurniawan’s status as a new breed of wine expert. While other sommeliers might lead closeted lives in dusty ancient cellars, Kurniawan was effervescent and magnetic. He spoke with passion and authority on his subject and impressed guests with his confidence and knowledge. He lived in a multi-million dollar mansion and drove a Ferrari. He was the antithesis of the musty, snobbish stereotype that had dominated the wine world for decades. Flashy Valley residents couldn’t get enough.
As Kurniawan’s reputation continued to grow, he began to reap the rewards. In 2006, he consigned two lots from his cellar to be sold by famous auctioneers Acker, Merral and Condit. The first was bought for $10.6 million dollars. The second went for $24.7 million - a new world record for sale of wine at auction, beating the previous highest by more than $10 million. Coupled with his constant lavish partying and prodigious private sales, Kurniawan was living the dream.
Up until now, Kurniawan had been operating relatively free from scrutiny. His new friends did not think to look at his background and were too happy to be seen swilling the rarest wines on earth to pay much attention to what was going on behind the scenes. This began to change in 2008. Looking for his next big score, Kurniawan had lined up a consignment of several bottles from acclaimed wine merchants Domaine Ponsot from the Clos St. Denis Grand Cru appellation. These vintages varied between 1945 to 1971 and were set to sell for several thousand dollars a bottle.
Before the auction could take place, however, the bottles caught the attention of the current head of Domaine Ponsot, Laurent Ponsot. He was adamant that the company had never made a bottle of Clos St. Denis Grand Cru before 1982. Kurniawan’s story didn’t stack up. Curiosity peaked, Ponsot began to do some digging.
Unbeknownst to Ponsot, Kurniawan had also made a powerful enemy in the United States. Bill Koch - co-founder of Koch Industries and billionaire art collector - had become convinced that several bottles bought from Kurniawan’s collection either privately or at auction were fraudulent. He hired private investigator Brad Goldstein, who quickly unearthed a magnum of Petrus champagne sold by Kurniawan dating from a year when no Petrus magnums had ever been produced. Koch’s investigation, coupled with Ponsot’s revelations, caught the attention of authorities, who moved to arrest Kurniawan in March 2012.
At Kurniawan’s house, police found evidence of a well-oiled and elaborate counterfeiting operation. Inexpensive bottles of locally produced wine were found with corks and notes detailing which vintage they were to be passed off as, alongside stamps, labels and other equipment necessary for fraud. It became clear that Kurniawan was both passing off cheaper, though still old Burgundies as more valuable vintages, as well as using his palate to perfectly recreate the taste of highly sought after bottles with a mixture of other wines. It was also clear that he had been doing this for a long time.
When it came to trial, the bravado with which Kurniawan had operated became even more clear. Stories emerged of bottles sold that had never been produced, as well as sales to a host of high-profile victims. Eventually, he was convicted on several counts of fraud and sentenced to 10 years in a California correctional facility. He settled out of court with Bill Koch for $3m and was forced to disclose all knowledge of the wine counterfeiting industry to authorities. He is set to be released in January 2021.
However satisfying it might be to see scores of bankers and Silicon Valley execs hoodwinked out of thousands of dollars, it’s important to remember that Kurniawan was a criminal. While the majority of Kurniawan’s embarrassed victims remained largely silent, the litany of lawsuits and public charges filed against him highlight just how extensive his operation was. This was fraud on a grand scale. It may be tempting to brush Kurniawan off as a cavalier Robin Hood, but at the end of the day, he’s exactly where he belongs.