Rudy Kurniawan has been convicted of a 'smoke and mirrors' operation to make and sell counterfeit fine wine, in one of the most high-profile wine fraud trials on record.
It took the 12-strong jury less than a single morning to reach guilty verdicts on two charges, covering both mail and wire fraud, following several days of evidence from the prosecution that revealed the extent to which Kurniawan had turned his Los Angeles home into a factory able to pump out copies of some of the world’s finest wines.
Judge Richard Berman said that the trial wrapped up ‘even a little bit sooner than we anticipated’. Kurniawan’s defence lawyers called a solitary witness to make their case on the final day of the trial, and predominantly relied on attempts to question the prosecution’s evidence.
For just over a week, that evidence mounted daily; from the foil cover on Kurniawan’s kitchen window to the requests for empty bottles from restaurants and the presentation in court of counterfeit wines and labels that were found in the defendant’s home.
Alongside Kurniawan’s elaborate home counterfeiting operation, complete with digital printer, stamps of famous chateaux and bags of corks in the bedroom, he found himself caught out on the basics several times.
Winemaker Laurent Ponsot explained to jurors last week how a purported Domaine Ponsot Clos Saint-Denis 1945 ‘cannot exist’, because the estate only began producing under this appellation in 1982.
One of Kurniawan’s defence lawyers, Jerome Mooney, said that his client intends to appeal yesterday’s guilty verdict. Unless successful, he now faces the prospect of several decades in prison. Judge Berman agreed 28 March 2014 as the date when the defence must submit a presentencing report, with sentencing due on 24 April.
Addressing the jury on Tuesday before deliberations, state prosecutor Joseph Facciponti described Kurniawan’s operation as ‘smoke and mirrors’.
‘The magic cellar, that’s where Rudy Kurniawan, the defendant said that he found a seemingly endless stash of incredibly rare, incredibly valuable old wines that he sold to the victims around the world for years, wines that were so rare and so great that they were the stuff of legend, that even the people whose families had made those wines said that they didn’t think that any bottles still existed.’
‘And for a while, the defendant’s magic show worked. He entranced the wine-collecting community with his self-serving generosity and self-declared expertise in all things related to fine wine. And he sold his fakes for millions of dollars at auctions and directly to collectors.’
‘But there was just one problem. There was no magic in the magic cellar. It was only the defendant’s lies, lies that he told to get his victims to pay the millions of dollars for his fake wines, lies that he told about the origin of his fake wines and where he got them, and lies that he told to cover his tracks when others began to suspect that the magic cellar wasn’t truly magic at all, but just a bunch of smoke and mirrors.’
I said at the beginning, this is a case about greed and lies, but those lies end today,’ he said.
Throughout the case, the defence argued that Kurniawan became embroiled in a much bigger counterfeiting scene in the fine wine sector. Counterfeits are ‘rampant’, Mooney said.
Written by Chris Mercer & John Abbott