Indonesian accused of selling fake vintage wine in US

Indonesian accused of selling fake vintage wine in US

NEW YORK - US prosecutors on Wednesday stacked up evidence against one of the world's top wine collectors, on trial in New York accused of selling fake vintage wine that could see him jailed 40 years.

Indonesian-born Rudy Kurniawan, who has lived illegally in the United States since his asylum bid was rejected in 2003, was once considered one of the top five wine collectors in the world.

The court heard how he rose rapidly to the top of his profession thanks to his exceptional palate, capable of identifying and memorising the world's finest wines, and spent millions each year.

But prosecutors say his lifestyle was built on a lie. They say he sold at auction and direct to collectors, ordinary wine that he blended in his kitchen "laboratory" and re-bottled to masquerade as vintage wines worth thousands of dollars.

"The entire house was a wine cellar, a wine factory," FBI agent James Wynne, who carried out the search of Kurniawan's California home during his March 2012 arrest, told the court on Wednesday.

The temperature was kept very low and one of the rooms was refrigerated, he said. He said there were bottles everywhere in the kitchen, drawers stuffed full of corks and labels, crates of wine in the dining room and a special area for taking pictures of bottles on sale.

The 12 jurors were shown half a dozen large notebooks in which Kurniawan wrote comments on wine and blending formulae.

There was an email purportedly sent by Kurniawan to a New York restaurant on October 23, 2006 asking them to send empty bottles of the fine wine he drank.

"Don't wash them, as they need them to look original for a photo shoot," he allegedly wrote. There was a follow-up email in which he complained that "all but two" were broken.

There were also run of the mill bottles on which he allegedly wrote in silver "40-50 DRC," understood as shorthand for vintage Romanee Conti from the 1940s and 50s. A bottle of Romanee-Conti can fetch tens of thousands of dollars at auction.

Kurniawan, wearing an impeccable grey suit, sat expressionless in court. He has lost weight during his 19 months in custody and his boyish face was hidden behind large black-framed spectacles.

Laurent Ponsot, of the acclaimed Domaine Ponsot winery in France, had been expected to be star witness Wednesday but his testimony was eventually delayed until Thursday.

He came across Kurniawan in 2008 when the defendant offered to auction in New York 97 bottles of Domaine Ponsot wine. The sale was set for April 25, 2008 and the catalog distributed to potential buyers offering 22 lots of Domaine Ponsot for an estimated total value of US$440,500 (S$552,030) to US$602,000.

It included a bottle of Clos de la Roche dated 1929 and valued at US$14,000 to US$18,000. Investigators would go onto establish that most of the bottles were fake, including the purported 1929. The first Clos de la Roche was produced in 1934.

After allegedly trying to sell more dubious wine at auction in London via an intermediary in 2012, Kurniawan was arrested at his home in Arcadia in the suburbs of Los Angeles.

The defense has portrayed a young man who desperately wanted to fit into the richer, older world of rare wine collectors.

Kurniawan is accused of postal fraud by selling fake vintage wines and of wire fraud by fraudulently obtaining the loan. His trial is expected to last about two weeks.

Although Kurniawan is alone in the dock, the question of whether he had accomplices is likely to loom large over the case with the defense painting a picture of a man being made a scapegoat.

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