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Château Sucker


The following month, there was a breakthrough in a civil case Bill Koch had filed in 2009 against Kurniawan: After years of procedural bickering, a court referee cleared the way for discovery to proceed. The FBI had been building its own case against Kurniawan, and had determined that he had been living in the country illegally since 2003, when his application for asylum had been denied. Now concerned that he was a flight risk, they filed for an arrest warrant. At dawn on March 8, a half-dozen FBI agents arrived at his house in Arcadia.

Kurniawan answered the door in his pajamas. The only other person in the house was his elderly mother. Hours later, when the FBI searched the house, they found thousands of wine labels for top wines, including 1950 Pétrus and 1947 Lafleur, Lafite, and Romanée-Conti. There were hundreds of old and new corks, and a mechanical device for inserting them. There were lead capsules and sealing wax and rubber stamps with vintages and châteaux names, such as 1899 and 1900 Latour and 1992 Screaming Eagle. There were glue and stencils and pattern scissors and warm white Ingres drawing paper. There were detailed instructions for fabricating labels for 1962 Domaine Ponsot Clos de la Roche. There were bottles of cheap Napa Valley wine markered with the names of old Bordeaux wines they were apparently intended to impersonate, and there were more bottles soaking in the kitchen sink, their labels ready to be removed.

Finally faced with copious, almost pornographically explicit evidence, the wine world has spent the last two months absorbing the implications. Paul Wasserman, who’d gone into business with Kurniawan storing and dealing wine, apologized to Don Cornwell, whom he’d once castigated. Some can’t believe Wasserman didn’t know more than he has let on, but others close to him say he was simply in massive denial. Wasserman agrees: “In retrospect, it seems so dumb to put so much trust there.” Now he wonders whether his family name has been stained, and even how solid the foundation of his old-wine knowledge is. He’d been posting tasting notes on ­Kurniawan’s wines for years.

After all, Kurniawan hadn’t only cornered the market in certain wines; he had cornered the market in expertise about them. Kapon, too, had published countless tasting notes based on Kurniawan wines, and Meadows also had derived notes for some of the very rarest wines from Kurniawan bottles. “I suppose I’m someone who genuinely believes in the innocent-until-proven-guilty principle,” Meadows says, “and Rudy had been very generous and seemed to be one of us, a true wine lover, and therefore I think I probably went six months longer than I should have extending the benefit of the doubt.”

For Wasserman and many others, it is critically important who Kurniawan ­really was. “I don’t know why it matters how much of a dick he was, but it matters a lot,” he says. Perhaps Kurniawan had been driven to counterfeiting by recent money pressures. “But if it was cold and calculated from the beginning? Whoa.”

Everybody has questions. Indisputably, Kurniawan had started with seed money. But who was his family, and had they really made their wealth in beer distribution in Asia? (Koch’s investigators discovered his real name to be Zhen Wang Huang, though this is not necessarily suspicious, as it’s common for ethnic Chinese in Indonesia to adopt local names.) Had he begun, as Wasserman hopes, as a true enthusiast and only turned to crime after spiraling into financial trouble? Or was this a long con? If so, had he acted alone, or did he have a backer, perhaps with organized-crime ties? Conversely, and perhaps more troublingly, was he a lone sociopathic trickster, who exploited his unusually good palate for the thrill of not only outspending but also outfoxing his more seasoned contemporaries?

Last week, Kurniawan was indicted in New York. He faces four counts of mail and wire fraud, and jail time of up to 100 years. Certain corners of the wine world are waiting for the inevitable revelations about Kurniawan and his magic cellar with urgency, but also dread. If his rise had demonstrated anything, it was how easily the urge to know more can be overpowered by the temptation to know less. In a recent phone interview, Rob Rosania, one of the staunchest Kurniawan apologists, spoke vaguely of his “disappointment” with “what has transpired in sum total” but seemed resistant to the evidence of his own eyes, referring to “allegedly the quote-unquote proof.”


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