TITLE: In Vino Duplicitas: The Rise and Fall of a Wine Forger Extraordinaire
AUTHOR: Peter Hellman
GENRE: Non-fiction, Food, True Crime
PUBLISHED: July 31, 2017
PURCHASE LINKS: Amazon
MOBILISM LINK: Mobilism
I am one of those people who enjoy a little bit of schadenfreude from time to time, mostly because I really like the notion of poetic justice: someone gets what’s coming to them in a way that is commensurate to the gravity of their offence or crime, and the more creative that comeuppance, the better. And because I take pleasure in comeuppance and poetic justice, Peter Hellman’s In Vino Duplicitas: The Rise and Fall of a Wine Forger Extraordinaire was also quite a pleasure to read. The book is a memoir of sorts, in which Hellman tells the story of the greatest scandal that rocked the rarefied world of wine collecting. In the first half of the 2010s, Rudy Kurniawan was considered the world’s top wine collector - he bought and sold extremely rare, extremely old wines for vast sums of money. He was also famous for being generous with his largesse; any close friend of Kurniawan’s could expect to drink, and receive, wine from Kurniawan’s own collection, which meant that whatever he was giving away was both expensive and rare. He was praised for his tasting acumen, envied for his near-insane good luck, and loved for his generosity.
But it all came crashing down in 2008 when twenty-two lots of wine were withdrawn from an auction in New York after the winemaker questioned their authenticity. Not long after, other counterfeit bottles were discovered in other auctions, and even in the cellars of other collectors, and most of them were traced back to Kurniawan. He was revealed for what he was: a conman taking advantage of people with deep pockets and shallow knowledge of what they were spending their money on. Not long after, he was put in jail - but his con has created deep scars of mistrust in wine collectors’ hearts, who will no longer be able to take the same pleasure in their hobby as they once did. “Rudy took the innocence away from what we do,” stated wine collector Allen Meadows in the book, and in many ways, this is true. After Rudy Kurniawan’s con, wine collecting will never be the same again.
First of all, I must state that I picked up this book knowing very little about wine - or at least, little in the sense that I am unfamiliar with the intricacies of taste and vintage and so on. What I know can be distilled (ha!) to two points: I like Chilean wine of any colour, and I prefer Asti to champagne. My family doesn’t drink much either, so even though we have plenty of wine at home because it’s a popular Christmas giveaway, most of it remains unopened. We might bring a bottle or two with us during the rounds of visits we make during Christmas holidays, even open one when guests come over, but otherwise we don’t touch them.
This means that I am very much not an oenophile, and therefore am likely not the intended audience for this book. But I chose to read this book despite knowing all that because I was curious. How does a person forge wine, of all things? Forging documents, money, and artwork makes sense; but wine? Fooling the eye is one thing, but fooling another person’s sense of taste and smell are even trickier because they are so ineffable. For that matter, what kind of person would even think to try this kind of con? And how does such a person manage it?
Hellman’s book manages to answer those questions, and more besides. It explains how Rudy Kurniawan fooled his moneyed, fast-spending victims:
[Kurniawan] was aided by his quicksilver charm—the starting point for any kind of con. That quality allowed him to pick holes in the reticence of moneyed people. His tasting acuity and wine literacy were impressive yet never off-puttingly pompous. Most of all, it was his generosity that unlocked the caution of his victims. The wildly expensive wine that he poured was often real. Or, if it was not, the recipients wanted it to be real, and fabulous. …
Charm is indeed a vital part of any conman’s personality, but I find it interesting that Kurniawan’s generosity was the true key to the rarefied circles his victims moved in. I suppose Kurniawan’s charm combined with the liberal hand with which he poured and gifted his supposedly immensely expensive collection would make for a thrilling combination, but a part of me wonders why these people find generosity, of all things, so disarming.
Perhaps this is because collectors are, by nature, hoarders: they do not wish to let go of their precious stocks so easily, nor without reason. And yet there was Kurniawan, regularly opening bottles that would have been the pride and joy of any other collector’s cellar, set aside for consumption only during the most important occasion. Any collector would be dazzled by such a bon vivant who regularly opened and shared prize vintages with casual ease.
On the other hand, the less generous side of myself thinks it equally plausible the people Kurniawan conned just are not given to generosity in the first place, and so find it disarming to see someone as moneyed as they are just giving away some of his most prized possessions. That might be an unkind thought, but even the author admits that the reader need feel no pity for Kurniawan’s victims:
Nobody need pity the rich guys (women victims are few and far between) who lost a bundle buying wine that turned out to be fake. They won’t be reduced to taking out payday loans. And for those of us who don’t have their kind of money and never will, the ungainly German word schadenfreude applies…
Schadenfreude is definitely what I was feeling while reading this book. Wine collecting is very much a rich white person’s game; those who engage in it come from the kind of economic and social background generally occupied by people with a lot of money to spend, and who live in developed countries where such hobbies are considered sophisticated and cultured. Indeed, Kurniawan himself, as a Chinese Indonesian living in the United States illegally was unusual in the context of American wine collectors:
… But for all the camaraderie he shared with these wealthy people, Kurniawan remained an outsider.
They were American citizens from birth, while hanging over him was a deportation order. They had wives, children, lovers. He went home to his mother, conversing with her in languages strange to them. That linguistic divide was impressed on Jefery Levy on post-midnight as a limo took him and Kurniawan and other drinkers to a Manhattan restaurant: “Rudy is on his phone and he is arguing in a different language. When he was done, I asked him who he was talking to. ‘My brother in Asia,’ he said. ‘He needs to send me my allowance for this month.’”
And yet, despite all of these differences, Kurniawan was able to hoodwink several people who considered themselves experts in their passion. This, despite being an illegal immigrant, despite being Chinese-Indonesian, despite speaking a language other than English. To be sure, he had access to a lot of money - he could not have even started the con at all if he didn’t - but not even legal immigrants with a lot of money can claim to have gained the same kind of acceptance that Kurniawan did amongst his wine collector friends/victims.
This is where the schadenfreude comes in for me. Under any other circumstance, these people would have either ignored Kurniawan, or treated him with thinly-veiled racism. And yet, before he was revealed as a conman, he enjoyed their full trust and confidence, and he used it against them to spectacular effect without any of them being the wiser. As a non-white woman from a somewhat-privileged background living in Southeast Asia, the idea of all these rich white men being so completely taken in by one of my own (loosely speaking) produces a kind of dark delight in my heart.
Despite that, though, I cannot completely embrace Kurniawan - mostly because of his background. The author does not go into much detail about it, but it appears that Kurniawan’s family fortune may be very dirty indeed:
… Bill Koch’s investigation of Kurniawan’s family points to a darker and closely shielded reality centred on two family members, each convicted of embezzlement on a gigantic scale from Indonesian government entities. The combined sum approached $1 billion. Little of that money has ever been recovered and may have been hidden in offshore accounts. Some of it may then have found its way into Kurniawan’s hands to support a lifestyle for which no other source of funds has ever been found. Brad Goldstein, in charge of Koch’s investigation, is “99 percent sure” that the two criminals, Hendra Rahardja and Eddy Tansil, are brothers of Kurniawan’s mother, Lenywati Tan. And, therefore, Kurniawan’s uncles.
The book then goes on to explain just how Kurniawan’s uncles managed to embezzle all that money, and then mostly get away with it. (One of them, Eddy Tansil, served a jail sentence for a time but eventually got out and disappeared from Indonesia.) It also suggests that Kurniawan’s wine con was a money-laundering scheme for his uncles’ illegally acquired funds. All of this feels very Marcosian: one family plundering public coffers, and then running off with their ill-gotten gains and using it to maintain a high-flying lifestyle abroad while their own people suffer. Because of this, I cannot see Kurniawan as a kind of Robin Hood-figure, who robbed from the rich to give to the poor (so to speak: he was famous for the enormous tips he gave while dining out at restaurants). If he were just stealing from rich white people it wouldn’t be so deplorable, but if his wine con was indeed a laundering scheme for his family’s dirty money, then that makes him complicit to a far graver crime: robbing the people of Indonesia. As I said, that strikes me as very Marcosian, and as someone who is living in the aftereffects of the Marcos regime, I feel I can sympathise with the people of Indonesia for having been victimised by Kurniawan and his family.
If there is anyone I actually feel sorry for in this whole affair, it is the winemakers like Laurent Ponsot. It was Ponsot who declared the twenty-two lots of wine being sold during that fateful auction were fake, and he did so because he wanted to protect the name of his winery and the integrity of the entire Burgundian wine-growing region and, by extension, French winemakers and winemaking as a whole. For Ponsot, it was not about potential lost revenue: it was a matter of honour, and pride in his product and his region as a whole. I am glad that the author gives Ponsot and his fellow winemakers their moment in the spotlight in this book because if there are any true heroes, and any true victims, in this whole affair, it is these winemakers whose dedication to their craft produces one of the finest foodstuffs in the world.
Now, for all that this book has its compelling moments (whether the reader is going into it for the schadenfreude, the education, or out of sheer curiosity), I do have one particular issue with it: the overall narrative flow. The author is primarily a writer of magazine articles, which are often short and snappy, and so is perhaps more used to working in the kind of short, snappy narrative timeframe often preferred for magazine writing. I think this has affected the overall flow of the book, resulting in a disjointed narrative that jumps from topic to topic and narrator to narrator without much thought for how the story flows from one point to another. It would have been better for the author to simply compile all the articles he wrote while covering the Rudy Kurniawan story, and then publish them as a single collection, instead of restructuring the whole thing into one continuous narrative. In fact, readers might prefer to simply read the articles themselves. Fortunately, they are available to read online, though it may take some sifting through the author’s index to find the relevant articles. Still, it might be a better alternative to reading the book.
Overall, In Vino Duplicitas: The Rise and Fall of a Wine Forger Extraordinaire is an interesting read, especially if the reader is, like me, fond of a little (mostly) harmless schadenfreude every now and again. After all, a majority of the victims (save for the French winemakers whose vintages Kurniawan faked) suffered little more than a mild pinch in their very generous bank accounts and perhaps a punch to their pride, which they can well afford to take anyway. However, the book is hampered by a clunky narrative flow, which really gets in the way of appreciating what might otherwise be an entertaining tale. Best to simply read the articles the author uses as the basis for this book (link above); they might make better narrative sense.