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Château Sucker

In January 2007, Don Stott, a former Wall Street executive and leading Burgundy collector, hosted an event at his home in Summit, New Jersey, to sample those wines with winemaker Christoph Roumier himself, who flew in for the occasion. Barzelay was there, as was Meadows. One guest, a dedicated collector of vinyl LPs who always had a loupe in his pocket, pulled it out and scrutinized one of the bottles. All the details on the label were right, but they were reversed in their positions; the label must have been a high-quality photocopy. When sommelier Tim Kopec tasted a bottle of ’59 Roumier Bonnes-Mares, he said, “I don’t know what this is supposed to be, but this is the best Rhône I’ve had.” Six out of the eleven Kurniawan wines opened were clearly fake, the group agreed.

Over time, Barzelay had drifted from thinking Kurniawan a dupe to thinking he might be knowingly unloading fakes he had bought innocently to wondering whether Kurniawan might not be more actively involved. The Stott tasting convinced him that Kurniawan was complicit. “At that point, it became abundantly clear that this couldn’t just be somebody getting some reasonable amount of fake wine into their cellar,” Barzelay says, “that he had to know much more about what was going on.” Stott began returning many of the bottles he had bought in the Kurniawan auctions to Acker. That summer, Cru instituted a policy of destroying all empty bottles.

Separately, in Palm Beach, Bill Koch, brother of tea-party-funding Charles and David and one of the biggest wine collectors in the country, was developing his own suspicions about Kurniawan’s wines. For the past two years, Koch had been conducting a sweep of his 43,000-bottle cellar for counterfeits, and had already filed several lawsuits against auction houses and collectors. Koch had been a big buyer at Acker, and in 2007, his investigators sent four Kurniawan-sourced bottles to their respective French châteaux to be inspected, and also had three Kurniawan wines examined using gamma-ray spectrometry. The conclusion was that the bottles were likely fakes.

Kurniawan’s access to outside funds had always been a mystery, and now, suddenly, it appeared to dry up. The timing was inopportune: The Bel Air renovation was a money pit, and had devolved into eight separate lawsuits and countersuits. And despite his haul from The Cellar auctions, a few days after the Stott tasting, Acker quietly filed a $1 million lien against Kurniawan. Kapon says the debt originated with an advance to Kurniawan, but it continued to grow—insiders suspect it was because more collectors like Stott returned dubious bottles for refunds—until by the end of the year, Kurniawan would owe the auction house more than $7 million.

But as Kurniawan scrambled for cash throughout 2007, wine friends came to his rescue. “Can u send a mil?” he e-mailed one collector, who responded, “Can do 850k this week.” By the end of the year, Kurniawan’s debts totaled $11.5 million, and he had started cutting dangerous corners, double-pledging collateral and understating his liabilities to obtain loans.

He was also chasing new outlets to sell wine. For an April 2007 auction, Christie’s Los Angeles sent out a catalogue featuring, on the cover, six Kurniawan-sourced magnums of 1982 Le Pin, a tiny-production cult Pomerol. The château, after being tipped off by the skeptic-aficionados, determined that the bottles were clearly fakes, and demanded they be pulled. Christie’s complied. Later that year, Kurniawan privately agreed to sell $2.2 million worth of wine to Andy Gordon, a Goldman Sachs partner and chairman of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

If anyone had reason to doubt Kurniawan at this point, it was Kapon, but if anyone was invested in Kurniawan’s innocence, that too was Kapon, and he warned against a “Salem Witch Trial” by the “No Joy, No Luck Club,” as he dubbed anyone who was anything other than celebratory about vinous matters. Acker was planning a big auction of Rob “Big Boy” Rosania’s cellar for the following April, and Kapon arranged for it to feature another tranche of Kurniawan’s wines.

A quirk of Kurniawan’s buying patterns that caught the attention of some brokers and bidders was his sporadic interest in plonk: “third-tier, worst vintage of just really old Burgundy,” in the words of a dealer who sold to him. “Why the fuck would Rudy buy that?”

How would you fake wine, anyway? You could blend two vintages, say a bottle of ’81 Pétrus (average auction price: $1,194) and a bottle of ’83 Pétrus ($1,288), to make two bottles of ’82 Pétrus ($4,763 each). It would be the right wine and taste the right age; even if it didn’t taste exactly like ’82, it wouldn’t taste exactly like ’81 or ’83 either. Close enough. With lesser wines that didn’t historically brand their corks with the winemaker or vintage, you could simply relabel the bottle as something much more expensive, by laser-printing a new label or soaking an authentic old one off an empty bottle. More riskily, you could tamper with a blank cork, inking it with the winemaker or vintage of your choice.