In Vino Duplicitas, Peter Hellman

The Wall Street Journal

Patrick Cooke
Aug. 31, 2017 7:10 p.m. ET

In the early pages of “In Vino Duplicitas,” an engrossing account of wine fraud and forgery, Peter Hellman offers a primer for anyone who has dashed into a shop looking for a last-minute bottle to present at a dinner party. The average price for a bottle of wine in the United States, he tells us, is $8, which will get you a “perfectly decent weeknight sipper.” For $20 you will get a more carefully prepared wine produced from better grapes. At $30 and above, the contents will begin to take on something like character. In this range you are free to effuse about the bouquet or the aroma, even if you don’t know the difference between the two.

The tricky thing about buying wine, Mr. Hellman says, is that a $8 bottle looks just like a $50 bottle—or a $700 one, for that matter. As the price of the bottle rises, so too does the level of the sophistication and experience required for buyers to evaluate a wine’s sometimes mystical virtues. There are a few tasting geniuses working at the loftiest end of the trade who are brilliant at discerning quality and rarity and, ultimately, a just price. For a time one of them was a baby-faced Indonesian-Chinese trader named Rudy Kurniawan, who appeared seemingly out of nowhere and eventually became the Bernie Madoff of ultra-priced wine, swindling millions of dollars from not only suckers who longed to add prized bottles to their Picassos and Lamborghinis but recognized experts as well.

Mr. Hellman picks up Rudy’s trail in the mid-1990s, after he had arrived in California on a student visa. Denied permanent-resident status, he went off the grid. Yet somehow he hid in plain sight, living lavishly (with his mother) in rich California enclaves. To this day the origin of his wealth has eluded investigators. As far as can be determined, he and mom came from a long line of Indonesian embezzlers.

If Rudy inherited a nose for larceny, he also had one for identifying the many moods of the grape. He coached himself in the details of wine brokerage, then began frequenting auctions and tastings, stunning experts with his acumen and demonstrating a particular talent for pegging red Burgundies, the most difficult of wines to parse. One San Francisco sommelier recalls watching Rudy work. “I was very, very impressed. He identified most of the wines blind.” Adds a seasoned aficionado who drank with him: “He was almost always extremely, unbelievably, insanely correct.”

Blending this genius with a con man’s easy ability to flatter and amuse, Rudy began hanging out with dot-com millionaires in the early 2000s. “He needed to ingratiate himself into their circles,” Mr. Hellman writes. “That he did with charm and generosity, always ready to uncork precious bottles . . . whenever there were wealthy people who might become clients.” He was invited to join exclusive drinking clubs in Beverly Hills, Las Vegas and New York, where trophy wines were opened one after another. He came to be known as the man who arrived with the rarest, most desirable bottles of the evening and always picked up the dinner tab. If anyone asked the source of his exquisite offerings, he whispered, confidentially, that his supply came from buying entire cellars in Europe and Asia. He knew that many of his new friends didn’t have the faintest idea, even sober, what a vintage Domaine Leroy Nuits-St-Georges was supposed to taste like. By the end of some drinking-club evenings most of the participants were so crocked that Rudy might as well have been pouring grape Gatorade.

The long bacchanal couldn’t last, of course, and by the early to mid-2000s, learned oenologists were detecting the aroma of a rodent in their midst. Rudy’s name kept coming up. Amid nonstop partying and the long hours required to keep his supply of “lumber” (as large magnums are called) flowing, he began getting careless: an errant accent aigu on a label that shouldn’t be there; vertical printing on a cork that should be horizontal; labels from supposedly old and musty cellars that appeared much too new. Rudy offered up wines for auction—often by the case—that experts believed had become extinct years ago. His most damaging error came in 2008, when he had to withdraw from auction 22 lots of Domaine Ponsot Clos St-Denis dating to 1945: The vineyard did not begin producing that Burgundy until 1982.

It would do Mr. Hellman an injustice to give away too much more. The remainder of his story is a cool howdunnit that includes legions of private investigators, an FBI agent who begins his inquiry by reading “French Wine for Dummies,” and a rootin’, tootin’ billionaire named Bill Koch (yes, another Koch brother), who vows to track down the varmint who contaminated his 40,000-bottle cellar. No particular wine expertise is required to savor “In Vino Duplicitas.” Mr. Hellman clearly knows his stuff but spares readers the tedious jargon of the dinner-party wine snob.

When Rudy was nabbed in 2012 and details of his deceptions became public—at least $20 million scammed—the response from the upper reaches of the wine world was muted. Dealers, vintners and auction houses weren’t eager to call attention to their having been conned. Hidebound collectors with valuable cellars wondered whether it might be a good time to sell—you wouldn’t leave a suspect Renoir on the wall, would you? “These were hot, hot businessmen,” one investigator said, as quoted by Mr. Hellman. “They had been defrauded by a guy who never traveled anywhere. . . . They looked like fools.” Indeed, a nebbish nobody who didn’t look old enough to buy a bottle of wine had palmed off millions of dollars of phony Bordeaux and Burgundies to the jet set without ever having been to France.

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