Collecting vintage Burgundies, Rudy Kurniawan drove the rare-wine market to new heights, then began selling his treasures. Or so it seemed. Michael Steinberger uncorks what may be the largest case of fine-wine fraud in history. Portrait by Todd Eberle.
On the evening of April 25, 2008, the wine auction house Acker Merrall & Condit held a sale at a New York restaurant called Cru. In contrast to the tedium of most wine auctions, Acker sales were bacchanals. They were normally held in restaurants, and many extravagant wines would be uncorked and consumed during the course of the auctions. Acker’s 36-year-old president, John Kapon, who was known to be the hardest-working and hardest-drinking man in the wine business, would join in the revelry while wielding the hammer. He would often have multiple glasses of wine arrayed on the lectern, and the effect as the night wore on was to simultaneously ratchet up his use of expletives and accentuate his tendency to butcher French pronunciation.
Wine helped lubricate the flow of money: early in the auction at Cru, two bottles of 1959 Dom Pérignon rosé that had once belonged to the Shah of Iran sold for $42,350 apiece, setting a new record price for champagne.
Later that night, Kapon was to sell a collection of wines consigned by a friend of his, Rudy Kurniawan, a 31-year-old Indonesian who lived in Los Angeles. Nicknamed “Dr. Conti” because of his affinity for Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, Burgundy’s most famous estate, Kurniawan had started buying massive quantities of wines around 2003; at one point, he was reportedly spending $1 million a month. Kurniawan also sold lots of wine: at two Acker auctions in 2006, he had unloaded wines worth an astonishing $35 million. For the auction at Cru, which he had flown in to attend, he was putting up 268 bottles from three esteemed Burgundy producers: Domaine Armand Rousseau, Domaine Georges Roumier, and Domaine Ponsot.
Shortly after the auction began, a man named Laurent Ponsot, the proprietor of Domaine Ponsot, took a seat at one of the restaurant’s tables.....