When Rudy Kurniawan, inmate number 62470-112, walks free from the Reeves I & II Correctional Facility in Pecos, Texas on 7 November, the man who did most to put him behind bars won’t be in any rush to meet him.
“No, of course not. Why would I put my feet back in the shit?” Laurent Ponsot, self-styled Sherlock Holmes of the wine world, tells Club Oenologique from Burgundy. “This is a bad guy and I want no contact with him.”
Ponsot never wants to talk about Kurniawan again, he says. But first he’s got to finish his novel, an ‘imagined’, officially fictional account of the five years he spent tracking down the counterfeiter. After this, he says, he will “restart a new life devoted to the purity of wine.”
Ponsot’s reputation, though, is now so intimately entwined with Kurniawan’s that it might be difficult to put that period behind him, especially as he intends to drop some pretty heavy hints as to the forger’s accomplices in the novel.
In 2008, as the then owner of Domaine Ponsot in Burgundy, he famously interrupted an Acker Merrall auction in New York just as a fake lot came under the hammer. The wine was a 1945 Domaine Ponsot Clos St Denis – a vineyard from which the domaine only made its first bottling in 1982.
Ponsot spent years doggedly tracing the origin of this “unicorn” wine. He met Kurniawan, the consignor, several times (“When I first spoke to him after the auction I knew from his eyes that he was a liar,” he says). His and the FBI’s investigations resulted in the uncovering of a colossal wine fraud, a 10-year prison sentence for the perpetrator, thousands of column inches, a couple of books and a gripping documentary, 2016’s Sour Grapes.
The story, however, is far from over. It’s unthinkable, according to Ponsot, that one man alone could have faked the thousands of bottles – first-growth Bordeaux, grand cru Burgundy – that flooded the market a decade ago.
“You can’t take 1,500 bottles of unknown Bordeaux and suddenly have Pétrus, or Haut-Brion,” says Ponsot. “It’s impossible that it was Rudy Kurniawan in his kitchen doing all this. He had a warehouse somewhere in the suburbs of Los Angeles, and he had people working for him.
“Also, he couldn’t have learnt everything he knew about wine [Kurniawan was said to have an excellent palate – something very difficult to fake] in a month, or a year. There had to be people teaching him about wine. He had accomplices.”
Who these shadowy figures were has been the subject of much speculation. There was talk of a possible connection to a multi-million-dollar corporate fraud in Indonesia, but the trail has since gone cold.
Ponsot knows much more, and while the as-yet-unfinished novel will name no names, he says people will be able to recognise the accomplices. “I know things that I can’t put down on paper because we have no proof and I will go to jail myself.”
While the as-yet-unfinished novel will name no names, Ponsot says people will be able to recognise the accomplices
The Burgundian, who left the family domaine in 2017 for personal reasons he won’t divulge, and now runs his eponymous negociant business with his son Clément, is adamant that there will never be another wine fraud on the scale of Kurniawan’s. For a start, the most expensive wines now have state-of-the-art anti-fraud protection, from DNA labels to blockchain authentification. “Faking still happens but on a much smaller scale. Because of Kurniawan, people are afraid to do it on a grand scale.”
This may be an over-optimistic view in light of the recent 18-month suspended sentence handed down to a wine forger in China in a case brought by the Bordeaux wine council, the CIVB. The trademark infringement lawsuit was filed after the seizure of almost 10,000 counterfeit Bordeaux bottles – from multiple appellations – on the stand of an exhibitor at the Chengdu Wine Fair; the CIVB says there are 15 other criminal cases pending.
It is clear, however, that modern wine fraud is far more likely to involve huge numbers of lesser wines than the grands crus. “It’s still an issue of course,” says Will Hargrove, head of fine wine at London merchant Corney & Barrow, “but the Rudy case heightened awareness of provenance”. Hargrove also makes the point that grand wine fraud involved a disproportionate number of large-format bottles, the double magnums and jeroboams that were sold and re-sold and opened far less frequently. Blue-chip producers like Pétrus and Domaine de la Romanée-Conti now have a stated policy of bottling nothing bigger than a magnum.
But Ponsot says he really doesn’t want to talk about fraud. “My main focus is my new venture with my son,” he says. Though he retains a stake in Domaine Ponsot, last year he released the first wines – 47,000 bottles of the 2016 vintage – under a new label, Laurent Ponsot, with a notably sci-fi aesthetic. Ponsot and his son will ultimately produce 80,000 bottles spread over 25 wines from less celebrated appellations up to grand cru level, via the likes of Chambolle-Musigny, Griotte Chambertin and the Clos Saint Denis for which Domaine Ponsot was renowned.
“I don’t want to make only grand cru wines,” he said. “I’m making premier, village and regular Bourgogne.” The wines will be made both from bought-in grapes and vineyards Ponsot owns; he says he is neither a “maison” nor a “domaine” but a “negociant haute couture”.
This, he maintains, is his main focus – he claims that when his book is finished (publishers are “interested – I will find one, no problem”) he will never give another interview about Kurniawan. “I have started a new chapter. I am 63 and I’m going to live till I’m 102. I will erase this period of time from my life.”