Rudy Kurniawan is a name that is known well across the wine community. Once it was a name that was associated with an overwhelming love for fine wines, later it was known as wine fraud.
His criminal career ended with his arrest on March 8th, 2012. A year later, he was found guilty on several charges of wine fraud and was sentenced to ten years of imprisonment. Furthermore, he was ordered to pay $20 million for his part in selling fake wines.
This is his story and the events that led to his downfall and capture.
Rudy Kurniawan was born on October 10th, 1976, in Jakarta, Indonesia. During the late 1990s, he attended California State University. In 2013, the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement decided that he should be deported to his country of origin. However, he did not obey that order and instead opted to stay in the United States as an illegal foreign.
According to a 2016 Netflix documentary called Sour Grapes, dedicated to his wine frauds and his doings, he had family in Indonesia. To the surprise of the moviemakers, two of his mother’s brothers were known fraudsters and were jailed in Indonesia. One of his uncles, Eddy Tansil, was convicted for embezzling $420 million.
The Wine Business
It was the start of the new millennium when a young man named Rudy Kurniawan started to make a name for himself in the Los Angeles wine scene. With his hearty laugh and sublime charm, he was the star everywhere he went.
But more than that, he had deep pockets and was very generous to his new high-end friends. He was this super-rich guy that everyone adored, liked his taste for fine wines, and nobody cared about his mysterious origin.
He was initially interested in Californian wines, especially with Pinot Noir and Cabernet Sauvignon. Later, he developed a taste for Burgundy. But that wasn’t much of a wine taste, as it was a taste for profit. What he tasted was an opportunity waiting to be explored by someone like him.
As a result, he started buying and selling premium wines that, by all accounts, were considered the best in the 20th century. He became a regular at all major auctions. His Domaine de la Romanée-Conti wine collection earned him the nickname “Dr.Konti”.
His legend grew further in 2006 when on one single auction, he sold wines worth $24.7 million. It was a mind-blowing accomplishment considering that the previous record was just $10 million. That was the time of the first dotcom.
Then, there was more money in Silicon Valley then sense. So, there were plenty of people that want to spend a ton of money on fine things. As it turned out, fine wines were high in demand.
Rudy knew that quite well and was making a ton of money on that. But as it turned out later, he did a bit more than just trading wines.
But Rudy’s luck wasn’t to last for too long. The first who noticed there is something fishy going on was Laurent Ponsot. His family first started making wines in 1982, yet this fellow named Rudy Kurniawan was selling vintage Bottles of Clos St Denis from Domaine Ponsot that were supposedly made between 1945 and 1975. He started an investigation.
Then Bill Koch, one of the wealthiest people in America, found some fake wines in his high-end wine collection. He also started his investigation. He hired experts and private detectives to look into the matter. All evidence pointed to one person – Rudy Kurniawan.
Soon after, the FBI got involved and started to investigate. In 2012, they raided Rudy’s house, where they found a counterfeiting workshop, fake labels, corking tools, empty vintage bottles, and notes on premium wines.
The FBI raid, and the obtained pieces of evidence proved that he was buying cheaper wines and was re-bottling them so they could be sold as premium wines for premium prices. He had that going on for many years.
The Moral of the Story
Don’t steal, don’t cheat, and don’t be a criminal, are the obvious conclusions. Otherwise, you will end up in prison. Rudy Kurniawan is still in prison, and strangely, his request for earlier release was always denied. So it’s fair to assume that all of his judges are wine aficionados.
But then again, the bigger question here is, are there any other wine hustlers out there? If so, how many are there in the world? And most important of all, how many times have we been deceived?
There is no doubt that wine fraud will remain a big issue in the wine scene for the years to come. How the wine industry will address the issue is yet to be discovered.