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Château Sucker

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Dr. Conti and the Gang  

The high-end-wine community was bewitched by its newest mystery man. Kurniawan wore clothing that was L.A.-hip and noticeably pricey: selvage jeans, custom Hermès suits, Patek Philippe watches, Chrome Hearts glasses, crocodile boots. He’d flap open his jacket to reveal a silk lining printed with a repeating cursive “Rudy,” or tease someone for having merely a Platinum Amex compared with his own Centurion card. Occasionally, he’d have a woman on his arm, such as a hostess from one of the restaurants he patronized, or be accompanied by a brother visiting from Asia, but usually he arrived alone. He was an hour late to everything, which struck some as a trust-fund slacker’s nonchalance and others as arrogance. And he disclosed only the wispiest details of his past. He’d moved from Indonesia to the U.S. to attend Cal State Northridge on a golf scholarship, he told one friend, then dropped out and opened a golf store. His ethnic-Chinese family owned a major Asian beer distributorship in Indonesia, he would say, and paid him a hefty monthly allowance to stay out of their hair. The beer was Guinness. No, it was Heineken. He got $1 million a month. No, $2 million. Though Wasserman invited Kurniawan to his house several times, Kurniawan always had an excuse and never reciprocated. Wasserman chalked it up to “OCD issues, or a certain amount of intimacy he didn’t want to have.”

Among a privileged set, though, Kurniawan’s quirks and résumé gaps were of much less interest than his generosity. After one tasting, Wasserman hailed him for having “poured the sickest lineup of wines I have ever had in one evening” and told him that “the scepter, the crown, the ermine cape is yours.” Meadows, too, became a beneficiary of Kurniawan’s largesse, through which he tasted wines even he had never encountered. Grateful, he took pains to field Kurniawan’s often arcane queries about labeling and capsule nomenclature. “I thought at the time, ‘Jesus Christ, he must take these bottles to bed,’ ” Meadows says. Soon, he was publishing tasting notes based on Kurniawan bottles, lending his blue-chip imprimatur to the young man and his wines. Robert Parker, the world’s most powerful wine critic, also drank them and pronounced Kurniawan “a very sweet and generous man.”

The most important relationship Kurniawan formed was with John Kapon, who was turning his family’s sleepy Upper West Side wine shop, Acker Merrall & Condit, into a player in wine auctions. Kapon, then 32, was cut from very different cloth than the sniffy traditional Anglo gavel-bangers. Before settling into the family business, he had flirted with being a hip-hop producer, and he blogged tasting notes that hinted at a sybaritic nightlife, comparing wines to cocaine and pot and “chocolate sex.” Kapon introduced Kurniawan to an enthusiastic, New York–based circle of new collectors who called themselves the 12 Angry Men, had bombastic nicknames like the Punisher and King Angry, and liked to boast of “bringing the lumber”—opening rare, big-money bottles at their tastings. “It was a Biggus Dickus competition,” an auction-house source recalls. Soon, Kurniawan was visiting New York often, and outdoing them all with the bottles he’d open. Because of his fixations on the 1947 vintage and Romanée-Conti, he acquired his own pair of nicknames: Mr. 47 and Dr. Conti.

In October 2004, Kurniawan posted on Parker’s website under the header “Last weekend where I tried to kill John Kapon with legendary wines!!” He wrote about an extravagant four-day run in New York in which he and a group of wine lovers had gorged on priceless Bordeaux and Burgundy. Kurniawan had brought with him what seemed an inexhaustible supply of hyperrarities from a “magic cellar”—including two cases of the extremely rare 1945 Romanée-Conti—which he said he’d bought from a collector in Asia for $2 million. Every night, the group would drink from Kurniawan’s stash and then end up at Cru, the Greenwich Village restaurant with a 150,000-bottle wine list, which stayed open as late as 3 a.m. as Kurniawan ordered one expensive bottle after another off the list.

The online wine boards are their own community, as volatile in their enthusiasms as the 12 Angry Men but with considerably less net worth. After posting his tasting notes, Kurniawan was declared “a ‘rock star’ of wine tasting” who had made “an incredible display of graciousness” in sharing his notes, which read “like a porn novel.” While a handful of members were more critical, wringing their hands about “excess” and “an offensive display of ‘I am richer than you,’ ” the majority rallied to Kurniawan’s defense. Rob Rosania, an Angry Man known as Big Boy, dismissed a critic with, “You’ve obviously never stepped to his level.” Kapon himself weighed in: “I can safely say that he would NEVER do ANYTHING to brag, boast, or show off.”


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