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Wine wizard’s sweet career ends on sour note

Rudy Kurniawan’s taste for fine wines, at least as he has told it, began in 2001 when he was 25 and at a birthday party for his father. There he swirled, sniffed, slurped and finally sipped a 1996 Opus One at a restaurant in San Francisco’s famed Fisherman’s Wharf.

Before long, the Jakarta-born resident of Arcadia, a Los Angeles suburb, was seeking out some of the world’s most prized ― and pricey ― labels and vintages. He quickly worked his way through those of nearby California vineyards, all the way up to those made from the grapes of France’s Burgundy region that top the world’s wine chain. A 2012 New York magazine portrait said Kurniawan spent as much as $1 million a month at auctions.

Thus, he became a legend in the wine world, but his story has no happy ending. For the last two years, the 37-year-old has had to settle with less sophisticated beverages in an American prison where he could spend up to 40 years in all.

That is the maximum sentence he faces for wire fraud, mail fraud and other crimes when he returns to court next week. This comes after his conviction in connection with bottling cheap wines and selling them as rare, vaunted vintages for millions of dollars to billionaires who apparently have less intelligent palates than his.

As Britain’s Daily Mail noted in May 2012, in a smarmy story after Kurniawan’s arrest and indictment: “The world’s most respected taste buds bought, sold and wrote about Rudy Kurniawan’s wine collection, many of which turned out to be re-marked fakes from Napa Valley.”

As the tabloid noted: “The rare wine collecting industry is built upon scarcity, and the credibility and expertise of preeminent critics. In reality, Mr. Kurniawan’s case may have proven the murky world of prestigious and rare wines is instead built on illusions, snobbery and ego.”

Police arrested Kurniawan on May 8, 2012, in a less than luxurious kitchen cluttered with empty wine bottles, corks, tape, and laser-printed copies of wine labels soaked off genuine rare wines.

By then the wine world had taken to calling Kurniawan “Dr. Conti”, after the Romanee-Conti vineyard in Burgundy.

His taste in timepieces, clothes and even credit cards was equally upmarket: Hermes suits, Patek Philippe watches, Chrome Hearts spectacles ― many of which were charged on the Centurion card, New York magazine reported.

Kurniawan’s main claim to fame was a palate so sensitive that he could identify wines in what is known as “double blind” ― without being told in advance that it was in a group he was sampling.

As his influence in the wine world soared, so did prices. A bottle of 1945 DRC Romanee-Conti bought for $2,600 in 2002 was auctioned off for $124,000 in 2012, New York said.

Flush with cash from the millions of dollars worth of wines that he bought, then auctioned off for millions more, Kurniawan went on a spending spree, starting with an $8 million home in the movie star hamlet of Bel Air. A Los Angeles Times article portrayed him in Bond-villain type terms, making the rounds in a white leather coat while carrying Chloe, his poodle.

By Paul Zach

(The Straits Times)