Tuesday, May 15, 2012

My hero, wine forger Rudy Kurniawan

Wine forger Rudy Kurniawan deserves to go to prison. The evidence seized by the FBI seems damning. Everyone knew he was selling forged wines, and when his house was raided, agents found a whole setup for creating fake bottles of rare wine.

Rudy Kurniawan deserves to go to prison. But reading this outstanding story by Ben Wallace in New York magazine, I cheered for him all the same.

There are no victims in Kurniawan's crimes who don't deserve a comeuppance, and where else are they going to get it in the US today? The wine-auction scene is full of powerful assholes: wine hoarders who nickname themselves "the Punisher" and "King Angry" and brag about the great wines they own.

These are not wine lovers. Wine lovers have a great bottle of Burgundy they love with a friend or two and savor every sip; they don't go on a website and show off the vintages they own just to make others jealous. These braggarts are the perverts of the wine world, treating wine as pornography to be ogled and airbrushed and pumped up to perfection. Do they care what a wine tastes like, or only if it has a perfect score from Parker?

Who would you rather spend an evening with: the forger Rudy Kurniawan, or the people who bought fake wine from him? Kurniawan, an Indonesian national with a great palate, would be so much more interesting. I can't think of a worse way to spend three hours than beside some guy who calls himself "the Punisher" because he has more prestigious bottles in his cellar than I do.

But this is the way power works in America: the powerful win every time. I can't get over the image of high-school-age Mitt Romney chopping off a classmate's hair while the boy, held down, cried for help. Romney became a campus leader; the classmate was later seen smoking a cigarette and expelled.

In past years Americans idolized certain criminals, especially those with even the slightest philanthropic tendencies (Al Capone, Michael Milken). We have rooted for bank robbers to stay ahead of the law (Bonnie & Clyde, John Dillinger). Some horrific criminals have inexplicable fan clubs (Charles Manson, John Gotti). And we looove fictional crooks, even if they're vicious (Tony Soprano, Michael Corleone.)

Rudy Kurniawan will probably end up in federal prison while the braggarts he conned will laugh loudly about it, probably with a flurry of homophobic jokes about dropping the soap. Indeed, most prisoners prefer not to tell their fellow inmates what crimes they committed for fear that this will lead to their victimization. Rudy Kurniawan should not have this problem.

"I conned egotists who think they're smart businessmen into paying thousands of dollars for vintages of wine that in some cases didn't even exist," he can say. "You know those loudmouths you see in restaurants, browbeating the waitress while telling her how many cars they own? I used their greed against them to take their money. And I spent it all so they can't get it back."

Rudy Kurniawan deserves to go to prison. Once there, he deserves to be a hero.

Follow me on Twitter: @wblakegray and like The Gray Report on Facebook.

49 comments:

Wine Harlots said...

There are no victims in this crime. But it's fascinating to watch the drama unfold.

You're spot-on with the line, "These braggarts are the perverts of the wine world, treating wine as pornography to be ogled and airbrushed and pumped up to perfection." I wonder if they are as creepy in person as they are in print?

All the best,

Nannette Eaton

Peter said...

"There are no victims in Kurniawan's crimes who don't deserve a comeuppance"

Yes, except if you were some middle class wine lover saving money for a long time to buy one bottle of a special Burgundy that you've always wanted to try at least once. And then it's a fake....

David White said...

"There are no victims in Kurniawan's crimes who don't deserve a comeuppance."

Really, Blake?

How can you be so sure that not a single bottle of wine he counterfeited wound up in the hands of an eager/budding oenophile, who saved up for months to buy a single bottle of First Growth or a Grand Cru Burgundy?

By counterfeiting so many bottles, Rudy's wines are likely everywhere. Let's say one of the "egoists" like "the Punisher" or "King Angrya" purchased, say, a case of '86 Lafite at auction. Now let's say that they later sold/traded some of those bottles -- and one wound up in the hands of a 25-year-old wine nut who saved up for an entire year just to taste the wine of his dreams.

No victims? Come on. If you don't want to pity the gazillonaires who have kitchen sinks that drink better than you do, that's fine.

But to pretend that there aren't any victims is just silly.

Finally, consider this part of the Wallace story:

"Largely because of Kurniawan’s influence, old-wine prices rose dramatically. In 2002, a bottle of 1945 DRC Romanée-Conti sold for $2,600. Last year, one went for $124,000."

In other words, a prized bottle of DRC could be split by, say, six not-terribly-rich wine lovers just ten years ago. Today, that same bottle of wine costs DOUBLE what the average American family takes home each year. And Rudy K is a big reason why those prices became so stratospheric.

No victims?!?

Unknown said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Maureen Downey said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Maureen Downey said...

Anyone who believes there are no victims in this crime - does NOT understand the extent of the problem or the profile of the average wine collector.

I have been helping real victims for years - and will continue to with all the crap that was put into the market by these scumbags.
Some of the players closest to Rudy were absolute jackasses, and some were victimized. The people who now have his "wines" who never cared to play in the reindeer games are absolutely victims.

Please check the class warfare at the door. There are real victims here. This is akin to saying that a call-girl cant get raped....

Question - does my client who is an ethicist, teaches at a theological seminary and who drives a jetta deserving of the fakes that he was sold?

I think not.

Anonymous said...

I think it's shortsighted to state, as Nannette did, that there "are no victims in this crime." It's bad for American society generally when such a fraud is perpetrated, it makes U.S. look bad globally, and more specifically it's bad for the wine industry, which already gets plenty of criticism, deserved and otherwise, from outsiders. I agree with David too that the full reaches of the alleged crimes have a negative impact on innocent victims. A lot of average people are being barred entry from the world of fine wine because of fraud.

Wine Harlots said...

David --

No victims.
As crimes go, this is not Madoff-worthy.
The poor victim is not sleeping on the street clutching his phony bottle of DRC.

You seem to think that the bottle of DRC sold in 2002 was authentic -- only 50 cases were made in 1945, the basic math makes it clear that most (if not all) of these wines are phony. Caveat emptor.

Nannette Eaton

W. Blake Gray said...

Peter and David:

Let the middle-class victim of Kurniawan's crimes surface.

I'm sure Benjamin Wallace would have liked to find one; such a person, if he exists, would make the story that much better.

I'm sure the Department of Justice is seeking this unicorn, to put on the stand at the trial.

If there is such a person, someone who saved their money for a long time to buy a single bottle of 1945 DRC, then I will write them a sincere apology. That's a promise.

Right now, I'd be apologizing to unicorns for not believing in them.

W. Blake Gray said...

Maureen: If your client is real, which I doubt because you apparently created a profile just to respond to this post, then email me and let me tell his story.

As for the inflated price of vintage wines -- who does that hurt? I contend that it actually helps the wine industry by driving up demand for current releases.

Maureen Downey said...

send me an email and I'll introduce you.
guess what - he's also african-american!
I have LOTS of middle-class clients. But this one will appreciate your apology.

maureen at chaiconsulting dot com

Anonymous said...

What a sad and shameful column. Stick to blogging about wine and spare us your bitter liberal commentary.

Anonymous said...

'I can't get over the image of high-school-age Mitt Romney chopping off a classmate's hair while the boy, held down, cried for help. Romney became a campus leader; the classmate was later seen smoking a cigarette and expelled'.

Seriously? Stick to wine Gray - this liberal junk has no place here where I come to read your wine columns. I'm about to turn off.

Anonymous said...

Wow. That chip on your shoulder must be awfully heavy Blake. No victims? What a stupid and ignorant thing to say.

David White said...

Blake,

Is your issue the wealth of the people who got duped, or the egos of people described in the Wallace article?

There are plenty of passionate, engaging, kind-hearted wine geeks who spend tens of thousands (or more) on wine each year. I know some of these folks, and have been fortunate to enjoy great some really stellar wines because of their generosity.

Are these people not victims?

Anonymous said...

To W. Blake Gray: Please give your email to Maureen Downey and I will contact you and share my experience purchasing wine from Rudy K. through a broker. I am not a victim of Rudy -- I cannot give him this kind of power. I learned a good lesson that I will not forget and I shall not make, again. Maureen described my background accurately.

W. Blake Gray said...

David: It's the egos, not the wealth per se, but the two are not unconnected.

Anonymous cowards who complain if something offends their social conservative worldview: You have the right to request a full refund of all the money you paid to read this post on your way out the door. Buh-bye!

Anonymous said...

Blake, it seems like YOU have some anger issues that you should explore with your therapist. Maybe you are jealous or perhaps you were the victim in elementary school. Maybe you have never lived up to your hopes or expectations for financial success - but painting anyone that bought a RudyFake as a pompous ass is absurd. You don't know everyone that purchased fake bottles and you can't assume that everyone that did buy a bottle is an ass. This blog is a joke. Hero indeed. Save your anger and jealousy for therapy.

W. Blake Gray said...

Anon: This is so much cheaper than therapy!

Actually I'm trying to contact someone who will apparently tell me on the record that he purchased some fake bottles, and if I get that story I will report it here as fairly as I can.

And one thing you have to say for me, as opposed to you, is I have the courage to stand behind my opinions.

Maureen Downey said...

And I have the knowledge and expertise to stand behind mine!

I have put you in touch with my client. Please try not to skewer him with bias.

W. Blake Gray said...

Maureen, you are the only one here to wound me, but I will assume you haven't read my work elsewhere or before today.

This is a blog, one on which I am proud to give my opinions, but I am also a journalist and take pride in journalistic fairness and ethics.

Lyle Fass said...

Dude, you are so off base about King Angry. I know him and have dined with him and your "assessment" of him is so far off base as to be comical. He is kind, generous, and please, find me an instance of him bragging and email me. lwfass@gmail.com. He also does not give a toot about Parker points. Excellent research there. Big Boy on the other hand...it's all true and worse.

wine-ev said...

"Largely because of Kurniawan’s influence, old-wine prices rose dramatically. In 2002, a bottle of 1945 DRC Romanée-Conti sold for $2,600. Last year, one went for $124,000."
It is ridiculous to assert that one individual has the ability to push prices up for almost a decade with no new money, only helped by his palate, generosity and a counterfeiting scam…
This credit should go to Mr. Greenspan and Mr. Bernanke, and their (fiat) money printing “long con”.

W. Blake Gray said...

Lyle: OK, I'll stipulate that King Angry may be nicer than his handle. Sorry, King Angry. You may want to consider going with a sobriquet more befitting, like King Generous.

Wine-ev: If I wanted to rant longer, you've hit on a good point for it. Nobody in these auctions had a knife held to their ribs. And the rumors of counterfeits -- indeed, the facts about some counterfeits -- were out there before these prices skyrocketed.

DAPZ said...

jj

DAPZ said...

Blake,
I am sure that wine auctions are full of assholes and those guys seemed idiotic with those silly nicknames.
But with due respect, it's dangerous to generalize. I agree with a comment that a middle class person could have gotten hurt but that is not even the point. An honest wealthy person goes to an auction, drops a ton of cash on a 1945 DRC and gets a fake. It's just not right; and it cannot be good for the industry.
I think what you meant when you said you were rooting for Kurniawan is that you really thought it was awesome that those douche bags got conned. Yes, it is funny, I agree. But it is not a crime without victims; a lot of good people may have gotten hurt on this hoax, people we don't know about, he did this for a long time!!!

Alex Anthopoulos said...

Hey! All these comments remind me of the Mark Squires bulletin board on eBob back in the day ... thanks for reminding me why I do not miss it.

Alex Anthopoulos

W. Blake Gray said...

Dapz: You're right in theory. There are probably a few collateral victims, and when I meet one I'll be regretful.

As Alex points out, would you want to spend an evening with some of the anonymous commenters here?

DAPZ said...

No I wouldn't.
I don't get why people feel there is a need to be rude when disagreeing, There is such a thing as a high level discussion; we see it all the time on your discussions with Adam / Siduri, it makes this interesting.
Good thing there is no anonymous option here anymore. I imagine it must be discouraging to write for free and get insulted by a bunch of people you don't know; it's the burden of having strong opinions, I suppose. But it's also what makes a good journalist

Michael F. said...

Funny thing about even wine in its highest form can be cooked, or turned or whatever. Those who purchase to hold in perpetuity should buy the labels and let their egos soar because they were never vested in the "wine". Those who purchased at the table as a good friend & Sommelier, Frederic Montandon, of Le Cirque, Las Vegas once told me, "over $50 you better know why you are drinking it." I have tasted the best of the best and what I remember are those I shared it with. There in lays the value, never anywhere else. Not cheering him on but really the term has new meaning "disposable income" for to purchase those types of wines and not know what you are spending that is what it is.
Michael Fanghella

DAPZ said...

Michel F, very well said!!!

tourette said...

Wow, lots of butthurt conservatives posting comments. Fantastic blog post Blake. Glad there is somebody with the balls to say it like it is.

Wiremu said...

A wine-searcher article about the 'Dr. Conti' indictment featuring Maureen Downey:

http://www.wine-searcher.com/m/2012/05/grand-jury-indicts-kurniawan

David F. said...

This post is pretty facetious, and given the smugness, I can only assume intentionally so.

Of course there are many characters worthy of schadenfreude in this saga, that much is obvious, but to think that there aren't many, many people who will end up tangled in this is just stupid. The market will cool, prices will return, and all these bottles will still be out there. There are already "middle-class" victims, and being someone who occasionally spends a few hundred dollars on a bottle of wine shouldn't make you a target for ridicule.

There's a complexity to this subject which is done no justice by this type of blog post.

W. Blake Gray said...

David: I am still waiting for a non-arrogant victim of this crime to step forward. Perhaps they will.

Am I concerned about a bunch of fake '45 Romanee-Conti floating around the world of wine collectors? No. The wines Kurniawan fraudulently duplicated were not the kind of wines that most drinkers would ever buy. In the meantime, people who want to spend a few hundred dollars on a bottle of wine -- I agree, there's nothing wrong with that -- can start paying attention to provenance, which means more of that money will go to the people who deserve it, at the wineries.

Show me the complexity you mean beyond that.

W. Blake Gray said...

By the way, let me add that while I am a notorious cheapskate, I paid over $500 for a bottle of wine twice last year. But I shared, I didn't call it "bringing the lumber," and I actually had the wines with dinner.

DAPZ said...

Great article about maureen, this lady know her stuff.

I am far from being rich and occasionally spend a few hundred bucks on a bottle of wine. I do this more than I should and it involves a certain deal of sacrifice for me, financially speaking. I am part of a tasting group and my friends and I get together 4 or 5 times a year to taste some great wines together. I usually buy this sort of wine on winebid.com and am now seriously worried about spending my hard earned money there.

JD said...

So its ok to commit a crime against arrogant people, just because they brag about the things they have? Using that logic, you can justify any crime commited. "he deserved it" What a load of crap! I would wager, judging from the polital crap you just spewed all over, that you would support a hate crime bill. Yet you single out certain people, and say they deserved it! What a hypocrite you are. I dont care if this never makes your page, because I know you read this. I respect the fact that this is your blogg, and you have the right to say what you want, but you are so wrong with this logic. You accuse others of being elitist, and saying they "deserved" to basicaly be robbed. You need to remove the eletist rafter from your own eye!

W. Blake Gray said...

JD: In addition to your spelling, your reading comprehension leaves something to be desired. You might take a second look at the very first sentence in the post.

Just for people like you, I repeated it three times. Do you need a fourth?

JD said...

Great job! Again proving my point of the pot calling the Kettle black. Now your a spelling elitist. I bet you are so good, you never have to check grammar, or spelling, but you wouldnt BRAG about that now would you? I may not be the best in spelling, punctuation, or grammar, but that doesnt make my point less valid. You are a hypocrite, and you are condoning an act of crime against a small group of people you do not agree with. Poor, or wealthy, a crime is a crime. You just showed you are no better than the peole you hate. They flaunt the money they have, you belittle people who dont agree with you, and who may not spell as well as a so called "writer"

W. Blake Gray said...

JD: I gotta say, this is rich, a guy writing in to call me all sorts of names and then saying I "belittle" people.

OK, little man, I'll say it a 4th time: "Rudy Kurniawan deserves to go to prison." Now go buy a dictionary and look up "condone." And maybe get some shoes with big heels.

JD said...

Ok, now that was good! Shoes with big heels, now that was funny! I can admit when I am had, and that done me in! HAHAHAHA Well played

W. Blake Gray said...

JD: Thanks for that, you give me the opportunity to offer you a virtual handshake and we can both walk away. In this exchange you end up the bigger man.

Unknown said...

High-end wine fraud is rampant, growing, and it affects everyone, says Downey. “I hear there’s more ’82 Pétrus sold in Vegas every year than was ever produced. But it’s wrong to assume that wine fraud affects only the very wealthy. When a retailer gets burned, when there’s an increased risk involved, or they have to make refunds, they pass those expenses on. It’s a lot easier to charge a dollar more on a $9 bottle and sell 10,000 of those than it is to double the price on a $10,000 bottle.”

Maureen Downy engaging in heresay regarding the sales of 82 Petrus in Vegas and suggesting retailers "gouge" thier clients when they get "burned" is sketchy at best!

W. Blake Gray said...

In another view that will make me unpopular, but it's true: If restaurants and retailers sell you a bogus bottle, they should refund the price to you. They are the professionals and they should be cautious about provenance.

anonymous2569 said...

You are treating Rudy as if he is a type of Robin Hood, which is not actually accurate. I socialized with Rudy for about 4 years over 10 years ago at multiple wine events. While I cannot fault his charisma and generosity at the time, he was only ever interested in top notch labels himself (which also extended far beyond wine) and he was very vocal on telling people what he had just bought, how rare it was, etc., etc. He only wanted the best and to be admired for all these prized possessions. So, he is exactly like the 'braggarts' that you heavily criticize in this article. Except instead of celebrating these rare, unique bottles like a 'normal' collector, he actually stole away their magic and cheapened them. So how is he a hero??

W. Blake Gray said...

Anon: I never understood how people could root for Roger Clemens, or Manny Ramirez, or any number of others.

Hendra Widjaja said...

I own a vineyartd and a winery in australia also a personal friend to some of Rudy's family member not that i know him personally.I do not agree to fake any of other people hard work especially brand like what Rudy has counterfeited . I can not imagine how devastating the effect on the label those family have been building for generations . Gray I think as a wine writer you should know how hard we have to work year in and year out to get a decent bottle of wine to your table. So please have a little mercy with things you write. My wife died 4 years ago because of my dream and do you think is ok to fake............?

W. Blake Gray said...

Hendra: I appreciate the effort farmers make in growing grapes, and I'm very sorry for your loss.

I do NOT think it's OK to counterfeit wine. BUT, I don't actually see how what Rudy did hurts the wineries. If anything, it makes their wine libraries more valuable because they can assure buyers of the provenance.

I wish you the best and hope that some day I can enjoy a legitimate bottle of your wine.