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How Wine Fraud Works

        Money | Scams

Famous Fakes
Florida energy magnate Bill Koch arrives at federal court in Manhattan to attend the closing arguments in his trial against California businessman Eric Greenberg whom he accused of selling him counterfeit wine.
Florida energy magnate Bill Koch arrives at federal court in Manhattan to attend the closing arguments in his trial against California businessman Eric Greenberg whom he accused of selling him counterfeit wine.
EMMANUEL DUNAND/AFP/Getty Images

One of the most accomplished wine frauds in recent history is Rudy Kurniawan, sentenced in 2014 to 10 years in prison for his crimes. Kurniawan's exploits as a wine fraud were brilliantly chronicled in a 2012 Vanity Fair profile by Michael Steinberger.

From that article, we learn that Kurniawan came to America from Indonesia as a teenager and fell in love with wine with his first sip of the high-end California wine Opus One. Bankrolled by what he said was family wealth, Kurniawan launched an expensive wine habit in his 20s, buying millions of dollars of rare bottles at auction and splurging for elaborate parties with bar tabs in excess of $250,000.

Once Kurniawan amassed an impressive collection of rare vintages, he began selling them. At two auctions alone in 2006, Kurniawan sold thousands of bottles for $35 million, including a few bought by Bill Koch.

But Kurniawan, FBI investigators ultimately discovered, was a wine fraud of the second school: real bottles, fake wine. After his lavish wine-tasting parties, he demanded that restaurants ship him the empties. Back home, he would fill the bottles with off-label versions from the same region or concoct his own custom blends using his talented nose for detecting subtleties of flavor. Koch sued Kurniawan in 2009 for selling him counterfeit booze, but it was the fed's criminal investigation that landed him in prison for mail fraud [source: Steinberger].

The second most famous wine cheat is still at large. German collector Hardy Rodenstock, born Meinhard Goerke, was the con-man genius behind the "Jefferson Bottles," 1780s vintages of Chateau Lafite bearing the scrawled initials of famous Francophile Thomas Jefferson.

Like Kurniawan, Rodenstock cultivated a colorful reputation as a globetrotting millionaire with exceptional taste. His greatest talent, though, was finding previously undiscovered cellars containing some of the world's rarest vintages. The Jefferson Bottles, Rodenstock insisted, were discovered behind a brick wall in a Paris basement [source: Keefe]. The address, conveniently, remains a secret.

Koch and fellow billionaire Christopher Forbes bought several of the hand-blown, wax-capped Jefferson Bottles at auction for hundreds of thousands of dollars a pop.

They became the crown jewels of Koch's collection, and he solicited historians from Monticello — Jefferson's estate in Virginia — to fill in the backstory of the wine's provenance.

To Koch's severe displeasure, the Jefferson experts reported the bottles were likely counterfeit, since they never appeared in Jefferson's meticulous records. Secondly, Jefferson typically signed his name "Th:J" in letters, but the initials on the bottles were "Th.J" [source: Keefe].

To solve the mystery, Koch employed an ex-FBI agent named Jim Elroy to scour the globe for clues. What did he discover?


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