NEW YORK — He was the onetime golden boy of the Los Angeles wine scene, but Rudy Kurniawan's life as a high-profile collector of rare vintages ended Wednesday when a jury convicted him of fraud for operating a fake wine factory and selling counterfeit wines to fund his lavish lifestyle.
Some of the wines Kurniawan sold privately or at auctions fetched more than $5,000 per bottle. But wine experts said Kurniawan's victims went far beyond a few very rich collectors and that his actions cast a cloud over the entire wine world.
"It's a betrayal of the winemakers and a betrayal of the buyers," said wine expert Michael Egan, a prosecution witness who compared each bottle of fine wine to a historical artifact.
By diluting such wines, Kurniawan muddied the history surrounding them, he said. "Every time you open one, it's one less of a dwindling supply," Egan said of the wines — some dating to the early 20th century — that Kurniawan was accused of doctoring.
The jury deliberated for less than two hours after a week of testimony from witnesses who included French winemakers, sommeliers, billionaire wine investors and the experts they hire to authenticate the contents of their cellars. In the end, jurors rejected defense attorney Jerome Mooney's argument that Kurniawan, 37, was as much a victim of counterfeiting as any major collector and that he had unwittingly passed fakes on to others after buying them legitimately.
Mooney, who called just one defense witness, said after the verdict that he would ask for "as little" prison time as possible when Kurniawan is sentenced in April.
He could receive up to 40 years for his conviction on two counts of fraud related to the fake wine and to his 2007 application for a $3-million loan from a New York finance company. Prosecutors said Kurniawan lied on the application about his collateral and about his immigration status by saying he was a permanent U.S. resident.
In truth, Kurniawan, who came to Los Angeles from Indonesia on a student visa in the 1990s, had been ordered to leave the country in 2003. He could be deported after serving his sentence.
"By the time of sentencing, he will have been incarcerated for two years," Mooney said of Kurniawan, who showed no emotion as the verdict was read. "I think that's enough."
Mooney said he thought the effects of Kurniawan's actions had been "largely exaggerated." Prosecutors have said Kurniawan's massive buying spree from at least 2004 through 2012 fueled competition for fine wines that drove up prices around the world.
Laurent Ponsot, whose Domaine Ponsot in France produces some of the world's most prized Burgundy wines, rejected Mooney's argument.
"The wine has been dirtied," said Ponsot, whose wines figured prominently in the case. Kurniawan was accused of consigning to auction in 2008 dozens of bottles of purported Domaine Ponsot with an estimated value of between $440,500 and $602,000. The bottles were pulled from the auction after Ponsot, alerted by suspicious collectors, confirmed they were fakes.
"Wine is a kind of element made by nature to bring people together and make people happy," he said. Kurniawan tainted that for many people by making them wary of fine wines and of their producers, Ponsot said.
In addition, Egan said collectors with wines linked to Kurniawan would have to go through their cellars to have them authenticated.
Prosecutors presented a wealth of evidence, which sat on a table in front of the jury each day. There were plastic bags stuffed with thousands of labels from Domaine de la Romanee-Conti, Domaine Ponsot, Chateau Latour and others, and marked with their most legendary vintages. Kurniawan reportedly printed the labels and stuck them on empty bottles he amassed. There were sacks filled with corks and a device used to extract corks without breaking them.
There was sealing wax and foil, used in the re-corking process. There were also bottles, some empty and some full, strewn across his home. Assistant U.S. Atty. Joseph Facciponti said Kurniawan would fill the empties with a "witch's brew" of relatively cheap wine and expensive vintages and then slap on a fancy label to fool buyers.
"Rudy Kurniawan perpetrated a vintage fraud scheme," Preet Bharara, U.S. attorney in
Egan said it didn't matter whether the most affected victims were wealthy collectors.
"Even if you're rich, you're still being hoodwinked," Egan said. "You're still being taken for a ride."