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THE WINE FRAUD STORY – THE BEAT GOES ON!


 

 

“CHATEAU SUCKER”

 

 

In the first story about the current Rudy Kurniawan alleged wine fraud since his indictment, (To read the story of the indictment click here [1] The New York Magazine has just published an article by Benjamin Wallace, the author of Billionaires Vinegar, entitled “Chateau Sucker” in its May 21, 2012 edition. The article chronicles the details of the sordid story of Rudy and the wide range of people duped by his scheme. The Underground was on the wine fraud story before anyone and first reported on it some 30 years ago. In fact, here is the Underground commentary from the Underground wine fraud article published earlier this year. Interestingly, it is a commentary on the wine that is described in Rudy’s coming-out party later in the “Chateau Sucker” article. (I guess he nor any of the kool aid drinkers were paying attention.) Here is the Underground commentary based on what the Underground had known for decades: Part of our early experiences with old Bordeaux also revolved around the pursuit of Pomerols, primarily from the 20s, 30s, and 40s, but also into the 50s and 60s. We early on determined that some of these old Pomerols were as good or better than the best wines from the Medoc. We looked all over the world to find old bottles and drank hundreds of them. We asked all kinds of questions and got a lot of answers relative to the quantities made,  the existence of big bottles, etc. The fact is that there were not a lot of the old Pomerols around. Virtually all of them were made in very small quantities. And, there was not much of a market for Pomerols in England which was the primary Bordeaux market in those days. In fact, one English wine writer called them “plebian wines”. Many Pomerols were sold to Belgians and often in cask to be bottled there. A lot were also bottled by French negociants. And, we never found or heard of big bottles despite our diligent searching. Strange then that later after the wines were famous that large quantities started showing up including big bottles! (More on this later.)

After all this time, the amazing thing to me is how many people drank the kool aid. It is very clear that many of the people duped had no idea of what the real wine was supposed to taste like. In fact, throughout the “Chateau Sucker” article, numerous people (including some of the “big numbers critics”) admitted they had never tasted some of the wines before.  And, furthermore, it is likely that many really did not have a sense of taste or smell that could differentiate between one wine or another irrespective if it was fake or not. So despite some big wallets (wealthy “collectors”) and big reputations (big numbers wine “critics”) these people also fell into the trap. Contrast that to my reaction on meeting Rudy for the first time when I immediately concluded that something was clearly wrong and that I wanted to have nothing to do with him. (To read that article click here [2]

Here are some of the highlights from The New York Magazine article “Chateau Sucker” along with my Underground comments:

…Even at Rudy Kurniawan’s coming-out party in September 2003, there were questionable bottles of wine…. Pétrus in a dozen vintages, reaching as far back as 1921, in magnums…. (I don’t believe for one minute that any of these big bottles of Petrus were authentic. The Underground published what I believed at the time to be the most comprehensive article done on Chateau Petrus and its wines back to 1920 in Volume II, Number 6 in the June-July 1981 issue. My friends and I, including Edward Lazarus, Geoffrey Troy and others, searched everywhere in the world looking for old bottles and could find very few. Regarding large bottles, Christian Moueix, the owner,  told us in the early 1980s that there were virtually no big bottles of Petrus made in the first half of the 20th century. And, the old bottles we did find from the 1920s were mostly past their prime. [This will be posted in the next Retrospective Review article coming soon.] This makes the entire premise of this tasting suspect from the git go. Combine that with the fact, that there is no indication of the provenance of the wines and this makes no sense whatever.)

…That Kurniawan had assembled such wines, and such winos, and was considered an expert at all about wine in 2003 was extraordinary, considering that just two years earlier he’d been a newbie.  The high-end-wine community was bewitched by its newest mystery man… (A new guy, two years into the game, comes up with bottles that none of us have ever seen despite having already been deep into the wine game for 30 years before he arrived? Are you kidding? Or just maybe you believe in the tooth fairy?)

 …he disclosed only the wispiest details of his past….. His ethnic-Chinese family owned a major Asian beer distributorship in Indonesia, he would say, and paid him a hefty monthly allowance to stay out of their hair. The beer was Guinness. No, it was Heineken. He got $1 million a month. No, $2 million….(No real indication of who the guy is or where he came from combined with the “mysterious” wines. How could this have been ignored?)

 …Among a privileged set, though, Kurniawan’s quirks and résumé gaps were of much less interest than his generosity…. The most important relationship Kurniawan formed was with John Kapon, who was turning his family’s sleepy Upper West Side wine shop, Acker Merrall & Condit, into a player in wine auctions…. Kapon introduced Kurniawan to an enthusiastic, New York–based circle of new collectors who called themselves the 12 Angry Men, had bombastic nicknames like the Punisher and King Angry, and liked to boast of “bringing the lumber”—opening rare, big-money bottles at their tastings. “It was a Biggus Dickus competition,” an auction-house source recalls (Nice. A commercial connection and a bunch of new guys who want to drink expensive wines no matter what. Also a few big numbers wine “critics”. Small problem.  A lot of these folks had never tasted the wines they were drinking including the “critics”.  And, now they are quaffing them down courtesy of  “Dr. Conti” who is an unknown quantity. But, what the h…, the wines are free! More red flags and siren alarms!)

 …an extravagant four-day run in New York in which he and a group of wine lovers had gorged on priceless Bordeaux and Burgundy. Kurniawan had brought with him what seemed an inexhaustible supply of hyperrarities from a “magic cellar”—including two cases of the extremely rare 1945 Romanée-Conti—which he said he’d bought from a collector in Asia for $2 million….. After posting his tasting notes, Kurniawan was declared “a ‘rock star’ of wine tasting” who had made “an incredible display of graciousness” in sharing his notes, which read “like a porn novel”….(Hype. Promotion. Hype. Promotion. Hype. Promotion. “Magic Cellar”? Created out of hot air? Two cases of 1945 Romanee Conti? There were only about 50 cases of this legendary wine produced. Again, in over 30 years of looking for this wine, neither I nor any of my friends had ever seen or heard of a full case that still existed. So here we have 2 cases from Asia? How likely is it that they would exist there since they were not originally sold there? And, what about the details of how they got there and from where? Oops. Small details. Notes that read “like a porn novel”?  Isn’t that just what you would expect from a great wine connoisseur and so called “expert” taster? NOT!)

 …Though Kurniawan presented himself publicly as a mere wine lover, a buyer and not a seller, by the time he made his splash on the wine boards, he was already consigning at auction….(How likely is this? New guy. Giving away “old” wines and then having large quantities of “old” wines for sale? This makes no sense.)

 …Kapon presided over the auction of what he unabashedly called “The Cellar.” It was, Kapon enthused in the catalogue, “the greatest cellar in America.” The unnamed consignor, whom insiders all knew to be Kurniawan, was “one of the most knowledgeable collectors that I have ever met and is absolutely obsessed with the underlying details of provenance, condition, and label minutiae and of course impeccable storage for his wines.”…(The greatest cellar in America? Hmmm. One small question? Where did the wines come from? How could that be ignored by anyone?)

 …If anyone had reason to doubt Kurniawan at this point, it was Kapon, but if anyone was invested in Kurniawan’s innocence, that too was Kapon, and he warned against a “Salem Witch Trial” by the “No Joy, No Luck Club,” as he dubbed anyone who was anything other than celebratory about vinous matters…. Acker was planning a big auction of Rob “Big Boy” Rosania’s cellar for the following April, and Kapon arranged for it to feature another tranche of Kurniawan’s wines….(This is simply unbelievable. The evidence is mounting, but where is the due diligence?)

 …Ten minutes into the Acker auction of Rob Rosania’s Champagne-focused cellar at Cru, a long-haired man entered the room and took a seat near the back. It was Laurent Ponsot, maker of a coveted Burgundy featured in 22 lots in the auction. Domaine Ponsot only started making its Clos St. Denis in the eighties, but the catalogue included Kurniawan-consigned vintages from 1959 and 1945. Barzelay had alerted Ponsot, and told Kapon he needed to pull the lots; Ponsot decided to attend the auction to make sure they were withdrawn….(Wines for sale from vintages that were never made with the owner of the domaine in attendance attesting to the fact that the wines are fake. If you couldn’t figure it out before, is there anything else you need to know? Well, maybe. Read below. Where after knowing the wines were fake, the people in the room starting booing. But, then also read what they were doing at the same time! Hint. It was not rubbing their belly and patting their head!)

…The Angry Men were rowdy that night. Their notes on wines they drank during the bidding, as novelist and wine writer Jay McInerney later reported, included “tighter than a 14-year-old virgin” and “stinky like the crack of a 90-year-old nun.” Standing up, Rosania noisily sabered open a $10,000 Jeroboam of 1945 Bollinger. “Shut the fuck up and let’s finish this,” said Kapon, in equally high spirits. When he announced the withdrawal of the Ponsot lots—“at the request of the domain and with the consent of the consignor”—people in the room started booing, like they wanted to bid on the wines anyway. “It’s Burgundy,” Kurniawan told a reporter afterward. “Sometimes shit happens.”….(Doesn’t this sound like fun? NOT! Disgusting is as disgusting does. This qualifies on all counts. And, the notes on the wines? How would the tasters know that the wines tasted and smelled like their descriptions unless they had been there? Maybe their sense of smell and taste is as bad as their wine descriptions. Or is it just a fantasy world? Some fantasies! Maybe there is more here than fraud?)

… there was a breakthrough in a civil case Bill Koch had filed in 2009 against Kurniawan: After years of procedural bickering, a court referee cleared the way for discovery to proceed. The FBI had been building its own case against Kurniawan, and had determined that he had been living in the country illegally since 2003, when his application for asylum had been denied. Now concerned that he was a flight risk, they filed for an arrest warrant….(Some 11 years after Rudy arrives in the US and after being involved with fake bottles for most of these years, he is indicted. Yet there are people who surrounded him that are still in denial. I guess they have their reasons. But, there are no reasons that make any sense to me. This was a train wreck from the beginning. From my perspective, it was never “if’ only “when”.)

 

Dr. Conti and the Gang. The current cast of characters from the “Chateau Sucker” article.  Bad and good from top to bottom with the perpetrator in the middle? Maybe. TBD. You decide!

(Photo: Ricardo DeAratanha/Los Angeles Times (Kurniawan); Mark Dye/Reuters (Kapon); Courtesy of Allen Meadows (Meadows); Jeffery Salter/Redux (Koch).)
***
These are only 10 excerpts from the article that I chose to comment on. I could have chosen dozens more. There is much more detail to read in the article. I encourage you to read it. It is fascinating. Not just for the wine story, but for the story of egos, arrogance, outrageous statements and behavior, ignorance, and gullibility. As I have said from the very beginning, if anyone had bothered to do even a small amount of investigation into the person and the wines there would have been immediate reason to be suspicious. (To read the entire New York Magazine “Chateau Sucker” article click here [3]).

And, as I said, my initial reaction to Rudy was extreme suspicion. For me, this Rudy story is nothing but a replay of a story I had already seen through my initial contact with Hardy Rodenstock whose real name is Meinhard Görke. And, even that no charges have yet been brought against him, I am told that there is evidence to warrant his arrest by US authorities should he ever set foot in an area where they have jurisdiction. He too fooled many people for a very long time including one of the most prominent of the English wine “experts” and the biggest of the big numbers US wine “critics”. But, he didn’t fool everyone and that is set forth in several of  Underground articles previously published on wine fraud. (To read the first article click here) [4]

In the case of Rudy, as I have mentioned, I dropped out after one encounter. It’s simple. “If it looks like a duck, walks like a duck, and quacks like a duck, it must be a duck.” You just have to be able to identify a duck! But, if you cannot tell the difference from a duck and a dog then you are really in trouble! Insofar as I know, there were only 3 people who continued to have contact with Rudy and attend some of the grandiose tastings, that were onto the fake wines and spoke out against them. They concluded at apparently slightly different times that Rudy was the source of many fake wines. These 3 people include my long time friend, who has been involved with the Underground since the very beginning, Geoffrey Troy, and my friends who are also wine enthusiasts, collectors, and sleuths, Don Cornwell (from the West Coast) and Doug Barzelay (from the East Coast). All the others seem to have been totally clueless, had some suspicions, but ignored them, did not care,  or were somehow involved in the scheme.  In the cast of characters, just exactly who played what role has not yet been completely flushed out. Stay tuned, it looks like there will be another chapter or two.

 

In Vino Veritas,Sig

John Tilson