Wine fraud trial

The entrance to federal court in New York where the trial of wine dealer Rudy Kurniawan was held. (STAN HONDA / AFP/Getty Images / December 10, 2013)

NEW YORK -- A federal jury convicted a former high-living wine collector of fraud Wednesday for using his Los Angeles home as a fake wine factory and running a counterfeit operation that prosecutors said victimized wine drinkers, collectors, and producers brought in from France to testify.

The defendant, Rudy Kurniawan, 37, showed no emotion as the guilty verdict was read in federal court. The jury, which deliberated less than half a day, also convicted Kurniawan of fraud for lying about his immigration status and collateral on a loan application.

Kurniawan, an Indonesian who was ordered in 2003 to leave the United States, could be sentenced to up to 40 years in prison on both fraud counts. His attorney, Jerome Mooney, said he would ask for “as little as possible” prison time when Kurniawan is sentenced in April.

“By the time of sentencing, he will have been incarcerated for two years,” Mooney said of Kurniawan, who was arrested in March 2012 following a years-long investigation. “I think that’s enough.”

The probe began after wine collectors grew suspicious of the expensive Burgundy and Bordeaux wines that Kurniawan consigned to auction houses and sold privately beginning in about 2004. Collectors and wine authenticators, some of whom testified for the prosecution, said labels on some of Kurniawan’s wines appeared doctored and sometimes contained amateurish errors: misspellings of addresses, or vintages for wines that had not existed at the time the label indicated.

Laurent Ponsot of Domaine Ponsot, one of France’s top Burgundy producers,  said he was satisfied with the verdict, but not happy.

“Satisfied because Rudy Kurniawan played a game. He lost, he’s guilty, that’s justice,” said Ponsot, who testified for the prosecution.  “I’m not happy because … the wine has been dirtied. Wine is a kind of element made by nature to bring people together and make people happy.”

Michael Egan, a wine expert who also testified for the prosecution, rejected Mooney’s argument that the impact of Kurniawan’s fraud had been exaggerated. Now, he said, any collector who has wine once owned by Kurniawan will need to have their cellars investigated.

“There’s going to be a lot of wines to be cleaned up,” said Egan, who also said that Kurniawan victimized not just people but culture, by diluting fine old wines with cheaper ones and then re-corking the bottles.

 “The whole thing about these great wines is that they’re meant to be historical artifacts,” said Egan. “Every time you open one, it’s less of a dwindling supply.”

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