Château Sucker

Rare-wine collectors are savvy guys with a taste for impossible finds. The biggest hoax in history took place right under their noses.

Above: Pétrus 1961 (real). Below: Pétrus 1961 (fake).Photo: Jeffery Salter/Redux

Even at Rudy Kurniawan’s coming-out party in September 2003, there were questionable bottles of wine.

A score of Southern California’s biggest grape nuts had gathered at the restaurant Melisse in Santa Monica that Friday for a $4,800-a-head vertical tasting of irresistible rarities provided by Kurniawan: Pétrus in a dozen vintages, reaching as far back as 1921, in magnums.

Although Pétrus is now among the most famous wines in the world, it gained its exalted status relatively recently; before World War II, it was virtually unheard of, and finding large-format bottles that had survived from the twenties bordered on miraculous. Paul Wasserman, the son of prominent Burgundy importer Becky Wasserman, is something like wine royalty, but before this event, the oldest Pétrus he had tasted was from 1975.

Nonetheless, two bottles left him scratching his head. The 1947 lacked the unctuousness of right-bank Bordeaux from that legendary vintage, and the 1961 struck him as “very young.” He briefly entertained the idea of “possible fakes”—’61 Pétrus in magnum has fetched up to $28,440 at auction—and jotted, in his notes on the ’47, “If there’s one bottle I have serious doubts about tonight, this is it.”

But in the rare-wine world, doubts are endemic; murkiness is built into a product that is concealed by tinted glass and banded wooden cases and opaque provenance and the fog of history. At the same time, the whole apparatus of the rare-wine market is about converting doubt into mystique. Most wealthy collectors want to spend big and drink famous labels, not necessarily ask questions or hear the answers. Guests at tastings don’t want to bite the hand that quenches them. Auctioneers may not want to risk losing consignments by nitpicking ambiguous bottles. Winemakers don’t like to talk about counterfeiting, for fear of the taint. Also, one thing not high on the FBI’s list of investigative priorities: billionaires getting snowed by wine forgers. It’s clear to everyone on this rarefied circuit that wine fraud is rampant. It’s also clear not many insiders feel an urgency to do anything about it.

Wasserman ended up convincing himself that the wines must be legitimate. Another guest who had tasted the ’61 many times said this one was “absolutely consistent” with his experience. And there was nothing suspect about the wines’ appearance. The colors were appropriate; the corks, even those that looked young, were plausible (it was standard historical practice for wines to be recorked). As for the hodgepodge of inks and paper types used for the labels, Wasserman wasn’t qualified to judge. But Kurniawan, usually soft-spoken and reserved, held forth with great assurance, in his lightly accented English, about the variable labeling of old Pétrus. As Wasser­man told a popular online wine board a few days later, “Rudy has become quite an expert on the subject.”

Dr. Conti and the GangPhoto: Ricardo DeAratanha/Los Angeles Times (Kurniawan); Mark Dye/Reuters (Kapon); Courtesy of Allen Meadows (Meadows); Jeffery Salter/Redux (Koch).

That Kurniawan had assembled such wines, and such winos, and was considered an expert at all about wine in 2003 was extraordinary, considering that just two years earlier he’d been a newbie. But in the moneyed stratosphere of hyperrare collectible wine, merely opening one’s wallet is often lionized as an act of courage or virtue.

Kurniawan has dated his wine epiphany to 2001, when, celebrating his father’s birthday at a restaurant on Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco, he drank a 1996 Opus One. Twenty-five at the time and living in the Los Angeles suburb of Arcadia, Kurniawan became enthralled, and was soon combing L.A. for the wine, quickly amassing 200 bottles. He started attending weekly tastings at the Red Carpet, a wine store in Glendale. Early the following year, at a charity auction in Paso Robles, he made a stir when, bidding on a hotly contested lot of the cult California Syrah Sine Qua Non, he simply held his paddle aloft until he won.

By the end of 2002, Kurniawan was on a classic trajectory, graduating from California wines to premier cru Bordeaux. Then he moved on, in time-honored fashion, to the apex of connoisseurship: Burgundy. Wine lovers fall hard for Burgundy. The greatest of its wines are considered singular expressions of their terroir, the region’s complexity challenges even the geekiest geek, and the wines are mostly produced in such tiny quantities that bottle-hunting can be obsessive. Allen Meadows, 33-year Burgundy collector, publisher of the Burghound newsletter, and the premier Burgundy critic in the U.S., says, “As much as I know, there’s ten times I don’t know.” Kurniawan took to it with such zeal that, says Meadows, “I’ve seen very few people learn Burgundy so fast.”

Among other things, Kurniawan was a gifted taster, someone with not only a discerning palate but also a prodigious memory—a taste library in his head. He could peg some wines “double-blind,” deducing their identities without knowing in advance that they were even among the group being served. He was soon making a splash in auction rooms, spending an estimated $1 million a month. He “cornered much of the megamarket,” auctioneer John Kapon would later say. Largely because of Kurniawan’s influence, old-wine prices rose dramatically. In 2002, a bottle of 1945 DRC Romanée-Conti sold for $2,600. Last year, one went for $124,000.

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.”

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.

The Ingredients: Left: How would you make counterfeit wine? If you were Rudy Kurniawan, you might start by collecting corks and capsules ...
Center: ...soak labels off really expensive real wines ...
Right: ...and while you're at it, laser-print thousands of labels for priceless rarities.
Photo: Unites States Attorney's Office for the Southern District of New York

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.

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.

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.

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.”

Château Sucker