Zhen Wang Huang
10 October 1976
|Other names||"Dr. Conti"|
|Criminal charge||Wine fraud, mail fraud|
|Criminal penalty||10 years in federal prison, deportation to Indonesia|
|Criminal status||Incarcerated at Taft Correctional Institution, Taft, California; earliest possible release date January 9, 2021|
He came to prominence as a wine connoisseur, and was promoted in 2006 as possessing "arguably the greatest cellar on Earth." Kurniawan was buying large stocks of negociant Burgundy and re-labeling them as more expensive wines, such as Domaine de la Romanée-Conti. He famously consigned several lots of Clos St. Denis from Domaine Ponsot from vintages long prior to any recorded production of Ponsot wines from that vineyard; the auction lots were withdrawn prior to bidding.
Kurniawan was arrested on 8 March 2012 and indicted for selling fake high-end wines at auction. The next year he was convicted and sentenced to 10 years' imprisonment.
Kurniawan attended California State University, Northridge, in the late nineties, arriving in the US on a student visa around 1998. His Chinese father reportedly gave him an Indonesian last name to help him maintain "autonomy". It has been said that his transliterated Chinese name is Zhen Wang Huang. In 2003, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement ordered Kurniawan to submit to a voluntary deportation; he elected to stay in the United States as an illegal alien.
A 2016 documentary film traces Kurniawan's family in Indonesia, including his mother's two brothers Hendra Rahardja and Eddy Tansil both of whom also committed massive fraud and were sentenced to prison.
Kurniawan began buying and selling large amounts of rare wines in the early part of the 2000s, spending as much as $1 million a month buying auction lots by 2006. At the same time, he began hosting tastings of rare wines with other collectors; he showed so much affinity for the expensive Burgundy producer, Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, at these events that he became known as "Dr. Conti".
Eventually, he wound up consigning lots to two major auctions at Acker, Merral & Condit in 2006, netting $10.6 million ($13.2 million in 2018 dollars) in the first and $24.7 million ($30.7 million in 2018 dollars) in the second. The second auction was the record for a single sale of wine at auction, beating the previous record by more than $10 million. During the two auctions, Kurniawan offered for sale eight magnums of 1947 Château Lafleur. A few days after the second sale, Kurniawan secured a loan for $8.84 million ($11 million in 2018 dollars) from Acker Merrall & Condit, secured by the wine and art in his collection.
In April 2007, Kurniawan consigned several magnums of 1982 Château Le Pin at Christie's in Los Angeles; the bottles were featured on the auction catalog's cover. Representatives from Le Pin contacted the auction house and indicated that the bottles were fake; Christie's withdrew the lot from auction after further review of the bottles. At the 2007 TASTE3 food and wine conference held in Napa, California, David Molyneux-Berry, the former head of the wine department at Sotheby's, noted that only five magnums of the 1947 Lafleur were produced, indicating that Kurniawan's wines sold in 2006 were assuredly fakes.
In 2008, Kurniawan consigned several bottles allegedly made by Domaine Ponsot from the Clos St. Denis Grand Cru appellation, with vintages ranging from 1945 through 1971. According to Laurent Ponsot, head of Domaine Ponsot, the domaine had never made a Clos St. Denis prior to 1982. Ponsot contacted the auction house, and the alleged fake lots were removed. Ponsot later met with Kurniawan and was left wondering if Rudy was a counterfeiter, or simply the last person to innocently handle counterfeited wine. Kurniawan, when asked after the auction lots were withdrawn where the wine came from, said "we try our best to get it right, but it's Burgundy, and sometimes shit happens."
After the Ponsot sale was called off, Kurniawan's luck had almost entirely run out. Bill Koch filed a lawsuit against him in 2009, alleging Kurniawan knowingly sold fake bottles to him and other collectors, both at auction and privately. He also defaulted on a $10 million loan from the auction house Acker, Merrall & Condit, where he sold much of his wine, including the withdrawn Ponsot sale. In February 2012, Spectrum Wine Auctions had to withdraw several lots of wine, worth an estimated $785,000, from an auction in London when allegations emerged that they were consigned by Kurniawan through a second party.
On the morning of 8 March 2012, the FBI arrested Kurniawan at his home in Arcadia, California. When agents searched his house, they found inexpensive Napa wines with notes indicating they would be passed off as older vintages of Bordeaux, corks, stamps, labels, and other tools involved in counterfeiting wine. He was indicted on several counts of mail fraud and wire fraud in New York on 9 March. Later investigations indicated that Kurniawan was purchasing inexpensive, though old, Burgundy wines and re-labeling them with prestigious producer names and vintages.
Kurniawan's indictment was updated on 8 April 2013, consolidating the fraud charges, and adding two new charges—one for selling a faked jeroboam of Château Mouton-Rothschild 1945 in 2006 for $48,259 ($60 thousand in 2018 dollars) and one for selling six bottles of Domaine Georges Roumier Bonnes Mares 1923 at a 2006 auction for $95,000 ($118 thousand in 2018 dollars). Domaine Georges Roumier did not produce wine prior to 1924, according to lead prosecutor Jason Hernandez, ergo the 1923 bottles must be fakes.
The initial court date for the criminal hearing was set for 9 September. Due to the court date conflicting with the harvest period for wine grapes in the Northern hemisphere, on 6 May 2013, the judge decided to allow three witnesses (Aubert de Villaine of Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, Christophe Roumier of Domaine Georges Roumier, and Laurent Ponsot of Domaine Ponsot) to testify before trial on videotape, as they would be unavailable to appear in Manhattan at that time.
Kurniawan, Federal Bureau of Prisons #62470-112, is currently incarcerated at Taft Correctional Institution in Taft, California. His earliest possible release date is January 9, 2021. As he had been living in the United States illegally since 2003, he will be deported to Indonesia upon his release.
Victims of Kurniawan's fraud include Bill Koch, who sued Kurniawan in 2009 alleging he sold fake bottles at auction and in private sales—specifically, a 1947 Pétrus, a 1945 Comte Georges de Vogüé Musigny Cuvée Vielles Vignes and two bottles of 1934 Domaine de la Romanée-Conti that were sold at the first of Kurniawan's two auctions in 2006. Koch and Kurniawan settled out-of-court in July 2014 for $3 million in damages, and Kurniawan should be completely debriefed regarding his knowledge of counterfeiting in the wine industry. Acker, Merrall, & Condit was still owed, as of February 2012, almost $3.5 million from their loans to Kurniawan. In January 2015, the contents of Kurniawan's personal wine collection was examined for non-fake wines that can be sold to help repay his victims.
The 2016 documentary Sour Grapes directed by Jerry Rothwell and Reuben Atlas retells the events in the wine counterfeiting story of Rudy Kurniawan. The film states that as many as 10,000 counterfeit bottles created by Kurniawan may still be in private collections.
- Atlas, Reuben (Director); Rothwell, Jerry (Director) (2016). Sour Grapes (Motion picture). U.K.: Met Film and Faites Un Voeu Production.
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Rudy Kurniawan, Inmate number 62470-112, Age: 40, Race: Asian, Sex: Male, Located at: Taft CI, Release Date: 01/09/2021
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