French Vintners Take the Stand in Trial of Accused Counterfeit Wine Dealer

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Three French winemakers testified at the Manhattan trial of Rudy Kurniawan, a 37-year-old wine collector and dealer who is charged with flooding the grand cru market with counterfeit bottles of Bordeaux and Burgundy between 2002 and 2012.

Laurent Ponsot took the witness stand to testify with a map of Burgundy in hand.  He explained to the jury the difference between a grand cru (the highest appellation in Burgundy) and an appellation village (blended village wines), and expressed the unique relationship between the winemaker and a terroir made up of 1,247 plots, which he described as “tarnished” by forgeries.

In his smooth English, the owner of Domaine Ponsot spoke of his “crusade against counterfeiters.”  He carefully examined the counterfeit bottle from one of his grand crus – a 1966 Clos de la Roche.  “It’s a good copy,” he acknowledged, citing only a few inconsistencies: the label, which was “too yellow”, the cap that was “too red,” and the totally unknown importer.

Seated alongside his lawyers, accused counterfeiter Rudy Kurniawan took notes during the testimony.  The two men had met several times before the trial, the first in April, 2008.  Ponsot was alerted by a collector friend in New York that 97 suspicious bottles from Domaine Ponsot were going to be sold. They were supposed to include bottles of Clos Saint Denis from 1945 and 1949 — except that this was a grand cru that wasn’t produced until 1982.

Laurent Ponsot immediately got on the first flight to New York and had the lot withdrawn from the sale. “It was quite a shock,” testified Ponsot.  He had seen a fake bottle in Malasia in 1995 — the label had been grossly photocopied — but he had never seen so many at once.  When Ponsot asked Kurniawan to explain the counterfeit bottles, dealer was vague at best.  He finally gave the name Pak Hendra with two telephone numbers in Indonesia, but this surname in Indonesia is about as common as Smith, and the telephone numbers turned out to be dead ends.

Laurent Ponsot told the jury how, for the following two years, he made sure he was invited to wine tastings everywhere to track down forged bottles in Hong Kong, Singapore, San Francisco and London.  “At practically every dinner, I would see one or two forgeries.  In 50% of the cases the bottles came from Rudy Kurniawan.”  Ponsot described how the wine market had become speculative, fueled by a growing number of millionaires — a windfall for counterfeiters.  He pointed out that there are four times as many bottles of Magnum de Ponsot on the market than his Domaine has ever produced. “80% of the bottles of grands crus from the four major domaines in Burgundy (Ponsot, Roumier, Rousseau and Romanée-Conti) dated prior to 1980 are forgeries!” exclaimed Ponsot at the trial.

Two more winemakers were also called to testify: Christophe Roumier and Aubert de Villaine, the owner of Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, Burgundy’s most prestigious appellation.  The grand cru Romanée-Conti from 1945 is one of the rarest wines in the world. “Only 600 bottles were produced and the Château has no longer had one for a long time,” he stated.  Nonetheless, Rudy Kurniawan regularly had this 1945 vintage for sale, as well as bottles from 1906, 1915 and 1933. These wines “no longer exist,” testified Aubert de Villaine.  “We go to great lengths to make exceptional wines,” he stated, saying that the best way to enjoy them is to drink a bottle with good friends. “Knowing that some bottles become mere objects of speculation is something we definitely don’t like.”

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