The $28 Million Story Behind the Biggest Wine Fraud in History

Rudy Kurniawan is a name that haunts some of the most renowned wine collectors in the world. A man who once had the most valuable wine collection in the world now sits in prison.

His crime? Selling over $28 million of counterfeit wines to unsuspecting collectors. Everyone has occasionally overpaid for a bottle of wine, but this was the biggest wine fraud ever.

How It All Began

Kurniawan was born in Indonesia and arrived in the US as a student at California State University in Northridge in 1998. He overstayed his VISA in 2003, and by 2007 he was said to have ‘the nose of a bloodhound’ when it came to identifying key vintages of rare Burgundy.

His taste for fine French wine was unquestionable, and he had a particular affinity for rare Burgundy from Domaine de la Romanée-Conti. Over time, he became known as “Dr. Conti”.

At the time of his conviction, there were over 5000 bottles of authentic wine within his collection—although he was a fraudster, he was a genuine collector, too. He now had the people’s trust, so the illusion could begin.

Although Kurniawan’s decent knowledge wine knowledge helped him get away with his fraudulent activities for so long, he was by no means an expert (as you’ll soon find out).

Kurniawan started by gaining the trust and friendship of high profile wine collectors, buyers, and auctioneers. At one time, he was bidding up to $1 million a month on wines, giving the impression of authenticity.

How He Did It

With his identity in place, Kurniawan would host frequent wine dinners at his ‘magic cellar’, pouring true rare vintages for his billionaire guests to whet their palate before whetting their checkbooks.

In truth, a lot of what Kurniawan was selling had nothing to do with wine, and more to do with the ego of people with a lot of money to spend on grand things.

With his Hermes suit and Patek Philippe watch, Kurniawan looked the part, and the rest was easy. Kurniawan enticed his guests to purchase what they thought was authentic wine, then retreated to his kitchen sink where the real ‘magic’ began.

He used rare vintages as the base of his fake wines, but plonk Napa cabs and cheap older Burgundies filled the rest of the bottle. He printed labels on his computer, sprinkled them with dust and carefully glued them on. Job done

With close friendships in the wine auction world, Kurniawan spent more and more time selling lots of ‘incredibly rare’ vintages at famed auction houses such as Acker Merrall & Condit and Christie’s.

Never before had so many rare vintages of wine been seen in such high quantities. It was only a matter of time before suspicion arose.

His Downfall

For a man so confident in his ability to scam some of the world’s most wealthiest people, Kurniawan’s downfall came from a bout of carelessness, overconfidence, and a failure to do his homework. In 2007, he tried to sell magnums of 1982 Château Le Pin (identified as fake by the winery) and 1947 Lafleur (found out by the former head of Sotheby’s wine).

The climax of his downfall came on one particular evening when from unsuspected guest in the auction room. Sitting quietly in the audience was Laurent Ponsot, the owner of Domaine Ponsot. Ninety-seven bottles of his family’s wines were about to be auctioned, and he knew for a fact that the vast majority were unquestionable fakes.

One lot consisted of a 1929 Ponsot Clos de la Roche grand cru—a wine that was not produced under the Ponsot label until 1934. A second series of lots consisted of Ponsot Clos Saint-Denis, a variety of 38 bottles in total ranging from 1945 to 1971.

The winery didn’t begin making Clos Saint-Denis until the 1980s. Easily avoided mistakes, but the cat was now finally out of the bag. Moments before the auction was due to start it was pulled by the auction house on the grounds of “inconsistencies”.

This time, Kurniawan had crossed the wrong guy—furious at the counterfeited use of his family’s name and heritage, Laurent Ponsot was determined to identify who was behind the fakes. It took four years, journeying around the globe, and partnership with the FBI, but on the morning of March 8th 2012, Dr. Conti was taken into custody.

The Sentence

A 10-year prison sentence was the result of his conviction, along with a fine for $28.4m to repay his victims. Among these were Andrew Hobson, CFO for Univision Communications ($3.1m) and David Doyle, the Co-Founder of Quest Software, to whom he managed to flog over $15.1m of fakes. In total, 12,000 bottles of fake wine were created and many auctioned off or sold before the culprit was caught.

Adrian is Vivino's UK Ambassador, he's a seasoned wine, spirits and travel journalist on a mission to help folks find their very own imbibe passion. Follow Adrian on Vivino by clicking here and check out more of his wine guides, educational series and curiosity-peaking wine stories.

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