For instance, Kurniawan didn’t mention the five FedEx packages he received from Cru that year, containing the empty bottles from his wild nights at the restaurant. It wasn’t unusual for a customer to take away a memorable bottle after it was spent. But over the course of Cru’s six-year run until it closed in 2010, no other customer ordered as many bottles and then systematically claimed the empties. Kurniawan was building a bottle museum in his garage, he explained to the sommelier.
Though Kurniawan presented himself publicly as a mere wine lover, a buyer and not a seller, by the time he made his splash on the wine boards, he was already consigning at auction. And problems had cropped up. As early as 2003, Internet entrepreneur Eric Greenberg was threatening to sue online auction site Winebid over some “suspect/bad mags,” e-mailing, “My goal is to bury the consignor’s reputation in the wine world.” Soon after, he reported that he had spoken to the consignor, Rudy Kurniawan, and was convinced that he, too, had been duped by whoever sold him the wine.
At a $17,500-a-head Top 100 Wines of the Century weekend put on by Kapon in October 2005, the wines included two bottles each of DRC Romanée-Conti 1937 and 1945. Doug Barzelay, a New York lawyer and Burgundy collector, and his good friend Meadows, sitting together, kept looking at each other as they sipped the wines. Neither had ever had the ’45. Both wines tasted incorrect to them, and both had been sold to Kapon by Kurniawan. When Meadows stood up to sing for his supper, he quipped of the ’45 DRC that “only 608 bottles of this wine were ever made, but over 10,000 have probably been drunk.” The crowd laughed knowingly. No one faulted Kurniawan, though. Barzelay and Meadows were inclined to ascribe any fakes to statistics: A person buying that much old wine was bound to end up with some phony stuff.
It became stunningly clear just how much wine Kurniawan had bought when, the following January, Kapon presided over the auction of what he unabashedly called “The Cellar.” It was, Kapon enthused in the catalogue, “the greatest cellar in America.” The unnamed consignor, whom insiders all knew to be Kurniawan, was “one of the most knowledgeable collectors that I have ever met and is absolutely obsessed with the underlying details of provenance, condition, and label minutiae and of course impeccable storage for his wines.”
The sale was important for Kapon. As an auction house, Acker was second-tier, the place that received consignments of a couple bottles rather than a full case, a piece of a cellar but not the whole thing. This would be Acker’s first single-cellar sale. Meadows wrote an introductory note for the catalogue, extolling Kurniawan’s “unparalleled generosity” and “tenacious persistence” in tracking down “some genuinely amazing esoterica.”
Over two days at Cru, 1,742 lots brought in $10.6 million. Nine months later, at Café Gray in the Time Warner Center, Acker held “The Cellar 2” auction (now, according to Kapon, “arguably the greatest cellar on Earth”). This one, with 2,310 lots, grossed $24.7 million, shellacking the $14.4 million record set by Sotheby’s in 1999. In a stroke, Acker became top dog in wine auctions. Kapon “just hit the ball not just out of the baseball park but out of the universe,” says Geoffrey Troy, Christie’s New York partner.
And Kurniawan had just received a $35 million cash windfall. Throughout 2006, with proceeds from the first auction and an Acker advance against the second, he went on a tear, buying millions of dollars of contemporary art and collecting exotic cars, including a Bentley and a Ferrari. He started a gut job on an $8 million new Bel Air house. In an L.A. Times article, he was depicted with Bond-villain flair, wearing a white leather coat and holding a poodle named Chloe. Speaking to the reporter, Kurniawan noted that fakes were a pitfall of collecting and one that he had learned to sidestep only after tasting “hundreds of bottles” and mastering the details of corks, labels, and bottles.
But during the run-up to the first The Cellar sale, a handful of more skeptical aficionados, including Troy, Barzelay, and L.A. lawyer Don Cornwell, had started to trade notes. A collection that had been favorably awe-inspiring when generously shared at private events beggared belief when assembled for auction. The sheer concentration of high-priced esoterica seemed uncanny. “When you have a wine like 1959 Roumier Musigny, that’s rare as hen’s teeth, coming on the market by the caseload … you do have to wonder,” Barzelay recalls. And you really had to wonder about the bottles of 1923 Roumier Bonnes-Mares included in the sale. The domain was founded in 1924. But Burgundy’s a crazy place, where even cynics could snatch possibility from the jaws of implausibility: Maybe the family that sold the vineyard to Roumier had included the previous year’s harvest, and it had been bottled under the Roumier name.