The nifty thing about old-wine cons is it is almost impossible to prove anything. Go back a few decades, especially before World War II, and no one really knows exactly what was done: How many bottles of a particular wine were produced, in what formats, in what packaging. The older and rarer the wine, the fewer people who’ve tasted it. Natural bottle variation is common. Skilled tasters can disagree about flavor, and even if a wine tastes odd, diagnostics are a minefield. Even high-tech radioisotope dating has uselessly huge margins of error for bottles that predate the nuclear age. Given this epistemic swamp, winemakers rarely step up and declare a bottle fake. It’s acceptable for an auction house to be reticent about a bottle’s origins, and when the trade speaks at all, it’s in euphemism: A bottle’s “inconsistent.”
Which is why what happened on April 25, 2008, was unprecedented. Ten minutes into the Acker auction of Rob Rosania’s Champagne-focused cellar at Cru, a long-haired man entered the room and took a seat near the back. It was Laurent Ponsot, maker of a coveted Burgundy featured in 22 lots in the auction. Domaine Ponsot only started making its Clos St. Denis in the eighties, but the catalogue included Kurniawan-consigned vintages from 1959 and 1945. Barzelay had alerted Ponsot, and told Kapon he needed to pull the lots; Ponsot decided to attend the auction to make sure they were withdrawn.
The Angry Men were rowdy that night. Their notes on wines they drank during the bidding, as novelist and wine writer Jay McInerney later reported, included “tighter than a 14-year-old virgin” and “stinky like the crack of a 90-year-old nun.” Standing up, Rosania noisily sabered open a $10,000 Jeroboam of 1945 Bollinger. “Shut the fuck up and let’s finish this,” said Kapon, in equally high spirits. When he announced the withdrawal of the Ponsot lots—“at the request of the domain and with the consent of the consignor”—people in the room started booing, like they wanted to bid on the wines anyway. “It’s Burgundy,” Kurniawan told a reporter afterward. “Sometimes shit happens.”
The glibness couldn’t mask the fact that this evidence was especially damning. Even if you rationalized away some of the bottles, there was no refuting the fakeness of many of the lots. “That was the fundamental moment,” says wine consultant Brian Orcutt, who was at the auction. “I can’t overstate how important that was to have something where you couldn’t argue about its legitimacy.” It looked terrible for Acker, too. “The notion that John Kapon did any due diligence is patently laughable,” says a wine expert who knows Kapon well.
The day after the auction, Kapon and Kurniawan had lunch with Ponsot and Barzelay at Nougatine, on Central Park West. “Rudy was just totally evasive,” Barzelay says. “It was kind of, ‘Well, I’d have to go back and check my records and see where I got them.’ ” In June, Kurniawan e-mailed Ponsot saying he had bought the wines “from the cellar of Pak Hendra in Asia,” and the following month, over dinner at Cut in L.A., Kurniawan jotted down two phone numbers. But the numbers turned out to connect to a regional Indonesian airline and a Jakarta shopping mall. “Pak Hendra,” Ponsot learned, was equivalent to “Mr. Smith.”
Soon after the Ponsot debacle, Kapon made the decision to stop accepting consignments from Kurniawan. “Acker’s relationship with Rudy changed dramatically,” Kapon says. Allen Meadows, too, found his view of Kurniawan darkening. Before the auction, at a pre-sale tasting, he had told Kapon, “This one ranks in my top five ever.” Now he says, “I was probably being used.” Meadows, defending his taste buds, wonders, as do others, whether Kurniawan may have been opening real wines at tastings, then selling counterfeit versions.
But even after Ponsot, there was still a major auction house willing to take Kurniawan’s bottles. When some appeared in the catalogue for a September, 2009, Christie’s New York sale, a collector e-mailed North American wine-sales head Charles Curtis to express his astonishment. “We vetted the cellar, and it’s fantastic,” Curtis responded, according to the collector.
Despite urgent messages from Cornwell, Christie’s went ahead with the auction, and also featured Kurniawan’s wines in at least two further auctions that year. “They just plowed ahead,” a collector says. “The Christie’s wine department was losing complete traction in the market, and they needed product, and this is where they got it.”
And so things might well have continued—Kurniawan wine popping up surreptitiously on the secondary market, withdrawn on occasion—were it not for two events earlier this year. The first was something like an Arab Spring of trophy wine: Cornwell, tipped off that Kurniawan was the source of suspect bottles in an upcoming London auction and still outraged by having his warnings ignored by Christie’s, posted on February 8 on a popular online forum called Wine Berserkers: “URGENT WARNING—RUDY KURNIAWAN IS TRYING TO AUCTION MORE WINES.” The president of one of the two obscure auction houses holding the sale responded to Cornwell’s list of labeling inconsistencies by boasting of an “elevated inspection process,” empty rhetoric that only caused the Berserkers to go more berserk. The insurrection generated enough coverage in British online wine media—followed by press releases from influential importers—to pressure the auctioneers to withdraw, among other things, twelve lots of DRC worth hundreds of thousands of dollars.