Star wine dealer guilty in New York fraud trial
The entrance to Federal Court in New York where the trial of wine dealer Rudy Kurniawan started on December 10, 2013
A jury took less than two hours to return a guilty verdict on two counts of wire and postal fraud against the 37-year-old, once considered one of the top five wine collectors in the world.
The Indonesian-born Kurniawan, who lived a jet-set lifestyle with all the trappings of a millionaire, sat impassive in the Manhattan courtroom as the verdict was read out.
Prosecutors described him as "a prolific wine counterfeiter" and an arch liar motivated by greed, a man who made millions of dollars selling bogus vintages blended in his kitchen laboratory.
The defense portrayed a young man who desperately wanted to fit into the richer, older world of rare wine collectors, and who tried to cover up the forgeries of others. He was a scapegoat, his lawyers argued.
Already in custody since his arrest in March 2012, he will be sentenced at a later date.
The court heard how he rose rapidly to the top of his profession thanks to his exceptional palate, capable of identifying and memorizing the world's finest wines so popular with tycoons.
But prosecutors say his penchant for fast cars, designer watches and contemporary art collections was built on a lie.
They say he sold at auction and direct to collectors more than 1,000 fake bottles blended in his kitchen or "magic cellar" to masquerade as vintage wines worth thousands of dollars.
"It is an enormous amount. This was an operation on a massive scale," said prosecutor Joseph Facciponti.
"He sold wine to victims all over the world. For a while the magic worked, and he sold his fake wines for millions of dollars, but there was no magic, only the defendant's lies," he said.
"Why did he tell all his lies? Because of greed, that's what this case is about, the defendant's lies and his greed."
Thousands of labels for the finest Burgundy and Bordeaux wines were found in the home that Kurniawan shared with his Chinese mother in Arcadia, on the outskirts of Los Angeles.
There were full bottles waiting to be labeled. Investigators found intricate formulae on how to concoct vintage-tasting wine by blending a mixture of far cheaper wines.
The allegations against him first surfaced over an April 2008 auction in New York where he had offered 97 purported bottles of Domaine Ponsot for sale for between $440,500 and $602,000.
But French expert Laurent Ponsot, of the acclaimed Domaine Ponsot winery, became suspicious and flew to New York to ensure that auction house Acker Merrall & Condit withdrew the lot from sale.
Ponsot said he asked Kurniawan where he had got the Domaine Ponsot wine, but despite a series of follow-up emails and conversations got no clear answer.
After allegedly trying to sell more dubious wine at auction in London via an intermediary in 2012, Kurniawan was arrested at his home.
"He wanted to be part of the club," defense lawyer Jerome Mooney had argued before the court.
In buying thousands of bottles of great vintage wine each year, it was inevitable that there would be fakes among them, given the rampant availability of counterfeit wine, he had argued during the week-long trial.
"He is not educated enough to see the difference. He starts fixing bottles up he wants to improve. Should he be doing that?" said Mooney.
"Probably not. He was not doing it to defraud people. The purpose is to protect it to be drunk."