Thursday, March 15, 2012

Dr. Conti, Prison M.D.

“On Thursday, Mr. Kurniawan, 35, was arrested on charges — filed in federal court in New York — of trying to sell fraudulent wines, which, if genuine, would have been worth $1.3 million, and also of counterfeiting wine.”—Eric Asimov, New York Times, March 13, 2012

So, kid, what are you in for?

Counterfeiting. You?

I bilked thousands of people out of money with a Ponzi scheme.

Yeah, I know Ponzi. Makes crappy Oregon wine. Though I loved him in “Happy Days.” I prefer Burgundy. Ever had 1923 Richebourg? I sold a bunch to some douchebags in LA. It was actually Lawry’s beef au jus, but those blowhards couldn’t tell. They just thought it had a dollop of Syrah in it.

I’m not talking about wine, I’m talking about taking millions of dollars from people who thought I was investing it in the stock market, then paying them dividends from money I stole from other stupid people who thought I was investing it. I should have been smart like you and just printed counterfeit money to pay them with.

No, I didn’t counterfeit money. I counterfeited famous and rare wines.

So, like submitting imaginary wine lists for Wine Spectator Restaurant Awards?

No, the actual bottles of wine. I forged bottles of wine to look like famous old wines, then got auction houses to sell them for me. Man, it’s a rush when your case of 1947 Cheval Blanc goes for $20,000 and it’s really a case of forged Cheval Blanc bottles filled with ’64 Louis Martini Cabernet I found at an estate sale. Even if they open the bottle and taste it, those chumps can’t tell. It’s not the wine they’re drinking anyway, they’re drinking the prestige, the label, the imagined history, their own hubris. Hubris tastes really yummy with foie gras.

Didn’t the auction houses suspect something was weird when a kid like you showed up with hundreds of bottles of rare wine?

Yeah, sure. And FaceBook cares about your privacy. It’s just a show, man. It’s entertainment. Like if you go on a game show and tell them you’re an elephant trainer when you’re really just a waiter—they don’t care if it’s the truth, just as long as your story is good enough to fool them. If it fools them, it will fool their audience. That’s the basic litmus test.

But why would they trust you? You certainly don’t look like any kind of wealthy wine collector or expert.
I smell a sucker.

Man, don’t let my looks fool you, I’m Dr. Conti! Do you know why they called me that?

You’re a gynecologist?

What? No. I had cases and cases of old Romanee-Conti, 90% of it fake, but still. And I’d always go to the best restaurants in New York and L.A. and if they had old DRC, I’d buy every damn bottle and drink it with these dupes, then pay for dinner. I’m guessing half the old and rare bottles of wine in those restaurants are fakes. I know most of the guys ordering them are. I spent so much money on Domaine de la Romanee-Conti wines, they started calling me Dr. Conti. It’s like I was a Chinese Dr. J.! Fooling those clowns was a slam dunk, that’s for sure.

But why are those old wines worth so much money? They’re just wine.

Amazing, right?! Wine collectors are nuts. They think that drinking these old wines gives them some sort of power, like Popeye downing a can of spinach. They try to one up each other. It’s a guy thing. My dick is bigger than your dick. Ever had 1870 Latour, they shout? Ever put ’59 Margaux in your mouth? Ever used ’45 Mouton as an enema? These are some seriously delusional guys. Wine defines them, gives them status, creates an imaginary aura of class about them, something they sorely lack. Watching them bid on my counterfeit wines was hilarious. They’d compete against each other for those fake wines like two guys wrestling naked in a D.H. Lawrence novel. Very homoerotic.

Hmm, that’s interesting. So I took the rich folks’ money by convincing them I’d make them even richer; you took their money by convincing them you’d make them more important and enviable.

Yup, you gotta either out-greedy the greedy, or out-vain the vain.

Dr. Conti—Vascular Surgeon!

Vains my specialty!

But how did you get caught? Me, I just gave in under the pressure and confessed. I should have just cashed out and gone into hiding. I should have moved in with Bin Laden. Or Martha Stewart. If there's a difference.

I made some stupid mistakes.

Got drunk and confided in someone?

No. I mean, I guess, in hindsight, I did a lot of stupid things that could have given me away. Like I would always take home the empty bottles of those rare wines I ordered in restaurants, so I could use them for fakes, or copy the labels.

That does seem odd. No one thought that was weird?

You’d think so. But, hell, I’d just bought these bottom feeders a $25,000 dinner. I could have taken home their empty marriages if I’d wanted. These were rich guys, stock traders and types, or they were “wine experts.” So also professional con artists. Nothing easier than conning a con—they’re the ones who are sure they can’t be fooled. I told them I was having a room built for these empty bottles of famous wines. Yeah, like collectors show off empty bottles. Losers display empty bottles of the ten great wines they’ve consumed, not guys with supposedly endless cellars.

So what brought down your scam?

Oh, I made up some bottles of wine that actually never existed, vintages of famous wines that pre-dated the actual winery, stuff that was clearly fake. It was stupid. I guess maybe deep down I wanted to get caught. My whole life was a fraud. I just wanted to be loved and admired.

Yeah, I was exactly the same way. And now I’m here in prison. Oh well, I think you’ll like it here, Dr. Conti.

I’m sure I will. Do they have any art classes?

Yes, they do. For rehab. Why?

I’m going to start working on labels for 2009 Bordeaux. By the time I get out, they’ll be worth a fortune!


Samantha Dugan said...

"I loved him in Happy Days" that one got tears.

Being an LA wine person I've met Rudy a few times. The first of which was like eight years ago while having diner with an importer friend and as we were leaving Rudy was there with magnums upon magnums of Cristal, Dom and Krug and was a little relentless in trying to get us to join him in drinking them. My friend was very polite but firm, "No, we are already running late for an appointment" he told him and when I got outside the restaurant and inquired as to where we were going next was told, "I just don't trust that guy Sam"....good instincts.

Next time was a couple years later and here was Rudy again, opening bottle after bottle for perfect strangers. Wines so rare and precious (ahem, maybe) that they took my breath away. All these "wine guys" sat around taking a sip of this, two sips of that and just moved on to the next. The whole thing was kind of depressing, unsightly and I walked away feeling like Rudy was a rather pathetic and lonely soul....looks like he was more than that.

Mockingbird said...

We like to vilify Kurniawan and Madoff, but the truth is that it was greed and vanity on the part of their respective dupes that made Rudy and Bernie into what they are today.

Ron Washam, HMW said...

My Gorgeous Samantha,

I also met Rudy, and even sold him wines like Marcassin and Screaming Eagle. I can't say, in hindsight, that I didn't trust him, but I never thought for a single moment that he knew anything about wine. Nor did I care. He paid in cash, which made things easier. But this would have been eight or nine years ago. I think everyone in LA wine circles ran into the guy.

But, really, the whole thing is steeped in comedy. An odd Chinese kid bamboozling millionaires and auction houses for years. Oh, did I forget "allegedly?" Though I cannot profess sympathy for his victims. They seem like a pack of pretentious and vain morons.

I love you!


Yes, that was my point. Rudy is just one more in a long line of wine con artists, con artists who have no end of gullible, vain and greedy victims to choose from.

I just love the comedy of it.

Wine Harlots said...

Funny as hell, as always.

All the best,

Nannette Eaton

Samantha Dugan said...

And what the hell happened to the follow up email option? Grrrr Word Press is looking better and better.

I love you too!

Ron Washam, HMW said...

I don't know, Samantha, maybe it vanished with the double word verify option. But at least now the "Collapse comments" tab actually works. It's always somethin'...

The Real Daddy said...

I have, in my possession, a bottle of 1973 Mouton-Rothschild that I purchased for $1.65.

I passed on it when it came on the market belatedly although the price was attractive.

Then someone discovered that bottles of this newfound stash said "Made in Canada" on the bottom and bore a date long after the bottling date of the wine. And then it turned out that the capsule had phony gold stickers on it.

So, it became a collector's item of a different sort and I got it for cheap. It sits right next to a bottle that, for all the world, looks like DRC, but was made in Paso Robles.

My inability to think up these get-rich schemes is why I am not. It also explains why I am not in jail.

Mockingbird said...

Not to be pedantic, but Rudy is Indonesian, not Chinese....
But given the safety and quality of children's toys and pet food imported from China, I don't know that we are salvaging any Chinese honor by making the correction....

Nicolas Rolin said...

Actually, Mockingbird, Rudy is ethnic Chinese (Cantonese, specifically) from Indonesia; I know, I speak Cantonese and have conversed with him in that dialect. The Indonesian surname means nothing; it's very common all over Southeast Asia for ethnic Chinese to take surnames in the language of their adopted country.

Dean Tudor said...

Could any of this Pinot Noir come from Sud de France? Or is that just wishful thinking for a sea of syrah and merlot....

Ron, another fine story, well-crafted and well-told. Congratulations!!! Do let me know if you want to flee the USA for the more politically-attuned but backward Canada. I could sponsor you.

Thomas said...

"You're a gynecologist?"

Too funny.

Hey, Nicola Rolin: are you a descendant of the one from Burgundy in the Middle Ages under Philip the Good?

If so, showing up in this thread is quite a hoot, considering that Rolin's reputation.

Bunny Watson said...

I'm nobody, just some chick who likes to research and became fascinated by this story. I can hardly wait for the movie! Esssentially it's Ponsot vs RK, but there are a number of juicy roles I can see. Perhaps Brad Pitt as Ponsot, he's old enough now.

Anyway, this was a great read and a lovely break from all the allegations and general finger-pointing. Thanks! I appreciate your informed yet snarky take.

John M. Kelly said...

Back when I first started in the industry I ran into Hardy Rodenstock a couple times. Maybe he changed his name and got some plastic surgery? Hardy at least had better stories about provenance.

The whole secondary market is a huge game of musical chairs. All the guys "investing" in 100-point wines that have no track record, and perhaps no age-ability? God forbid anybody ever open up one of these when they get older. Who ends up holding the stash when everyone finally sees how tiny the Emperor's weenie really is?

Anonymous said...

As usual, Ron, you see right through to the truth of the matter.

Mockingbird said...


If that is true, then I stand corrected.

The Wine Country said...

I was with Sam when Rudy drove up with his Bentley, his two babes and his magnums of Tete de Cuvee. (Big Tetes). He was imploring everyone within earshot to join him in a glass. I asked who this guy was and after hearing he was "a rich wine collector", I thought, rich people don't act that way. They usually don't want people to know they're rich. I had a bad feeling about him from the get-go.

Thanks for the piece, and for pointing out that foie gras will be the next conterfeited commodity to scam the unwise and the haughty.

Ron Washam, HMW said...

Puff Daddy,

I'm willing to be scammed for $1.65, like I am every time I buy Diet Coke at a gas station. And I remember those legendary bottlings of Hoffman Mountain Ranch Pinot Noir that ripped off the DRC label. Ah, those were the glory days.


Mr. Rolin is correct, from what newspaper reports have said. I hear the FBI took Rudy away in Chinese finger puzzles.


No plans to flee to Canada, though many wish I would. Eh.


Thanks. Bunny or chick? Which is it?


If drinking "great" wines were only about the experience and not about the bragging rights, none of this would have happened. I think what I like the best is the illusion that auction houses promote that their wines are
vetted by experts. Yeah, right.


Thank you, that's high praise. There's truth in comedy, and comedy in truth.


It's interesting that even those who were duped, who believed they were drinking those great old Burgundies, will probably still talk years from now about all the great old vintages of Ponsot they tasted. We are a sad race.

Thomas said...


Aside from the phallic measurement, a schoolyard "king of the mountain" mentality, and massive insecurities related to all kinds of performance deficits, why do you think most of the wine bores and money wasters are men?

Mockingbird said...

Corrie Brown wrote about this guy.

He asserted that a 140 year old wine tasted "fresh" - wonder if it was one of his counterfeits and if Allen Meadow's attendance at Kurniawan’s shindig affected his assessments of current Burgundy releases....

rwdavis2 said...

As to the "phallic measurement" thing. I've seen it wine guys. Between Pierro Rovani and some local wholeslaer with short man's syndrome. After several minutes of back and forth about some point about wines Rovani finally got fed up, pulled out his wallet opened it up, and said "$500 that mine's bigger". Very funny.

Ron Washam, HMW said...


What a different world the wine world would be if most of the big spenders were women instead of men. I've always said that the proliferation of CA single vineyard wines wasn't about terroir, but about the need for men to collect every damn one of them so they could brag to their friends. And would there be crazed Burgundy auctions full of fake wines? I suspect not.


Rudy was a big figure in LA collector circles. A lot of very knowledgeable people were always wary of him, but more were taken in. It's a wonderful story about how little so many care about wine and how much they care about the status it carries. The chat rooms are filled with them.


I suppose the same kind of story circulates around football fans, NASCAR junkies and any other testosterone driven activity. Thanks for chiming in.

Mockingbird said...

"how little so many care about wine and how much they care about the status it carries"

- kind of like wine writers/bloggers?

The question begs asking:

What kind of "expert" would not question these wines?

Thomas said...

Yeah, Mockingbird. I've been basking for years in my high status as a writer. I'd rather be able to pay the mortgage with words, but basking is all I get...

Ron Washam, HMW said...


It doesn't take long in the company of someone you're sharing a bottle of wine with to understand whether they love wine, or the status it confers. Wine is a gateway to being one of the beautiful people, one of those dreadful Jay McInerney types, or one of those guys showing off his expensive, Madagascar mahogany, wine cellar in the pages of Wine Spectator while his other trophy, his wife, smiles at him. I sure knew a lot of those guys once upon a time. More often than not, they robbed the very expensive wines they were drinking of all pleasure. Though there certainly are many collectors with unlimited resources whose passion and love for wine match anyone's. I suspect those were the guys who could see through Rudy.

In answer to your question, experts that had something to gain by not asking too many hard questions.


Since you're of the bask persuasion, maybe you should be making Txokolina, he said sheepishly.

Andy Perdue said...

Ponzi makes some really good juice. You must have been drinking the fake stuff from Russian River.

Yeah, I went there.

Ron Washam, HMW said...


I was just reporting the jailhouse transcript, not passing judgment on Ponzi. Go after Dr. Conti. Personally, I love Oregon wines. But I'm a guy who always loves wines from unusual foreign countries.

Thomas said...

Txakolina, Txakolina tiny little thing...Txakolina laugh, Txakolina sing.

Tzakolina even though you're pronunciation is wrong, when your heart is full of red wine your life is long.

What? It's white?

Back to the drawing board.

Ron Washam, HMW said...

Holy Crap, Thomas, that's not an incredibly obscure reference to a Danny Kaye song, is it?

Yikes. Thumbelina. Only on HoseMaster. Luckily.

Thomas said...


I am a fountain of obscurity bursting forth at every opportunity!

When I was a boy I hate that fucking song.

Thomas said...

I thought I had typed a d after hate

Mockingbird said...

God darnit, Mr. Pellechia, you use your tongue prettier than a twenty dollar whore.

Thomas said...

$20? You must have been out of the loop for quite some time...

Mockingbird said...

...and it seems you were in 1974....

Ron Washam, HMW said...

OK, you two, take it outside. This blog is all about ME.

Mockingbird said...

Well, ME, of all people, I'd expect you to bite on some choice Balzing Saddles quotes...

Mockingbird said...

make that: "Blazing Saddles"

Thomas said...

Mr. rubber hose; get your priorities straight: this blog is about US.

You are merely a noisy conduit.


How did you know that 1974 is a significant year for me. Didn't get to see the movie until December, 1975.

Mockingbird said...

I did not know that it was a significant year for you. I hope it was a good significant.

Thomas said...


Don't be so literal--or take me so literally.

In any case, that was the first full year I spent living in Tehran, Iran, and it was there that I met with Riesling produced in the Iranian mountains; then, I learned about history, not to mention the US/Iranian dysfunction.

I saw Blazing Saddles in a movie theater in Amsterdam while taking five weeks off to travel Europe before returning home from two years in Iran. The Dutch subtitles were a hoot, but not nearly as joyous as subtitles in Farsi might have been.

Mockingbird said...

Well, I suppose the Shah's regime might have been more permissive about the content of that movie than the Ayatollah's would be...

lkhajavi said...

Very, very funny. And the comments are equally entertaining!

Bunny Watson said...

You're welcome! This remains one of the best reads on the subject. (Of course I check the bbs thread daily!)

I am a chick who goes by Bunny - but really I'm more of a kitty at heart. =^. .^= And I've been sipping cheap-ass wine from Trader Joe's as I spectate!

Anyway, I think the 64 million dollar question here is which "moderately priced california wines" were in the bottles. I know I'd love to taste them!

Although the idea that Rudy's own nose might have been compromised by Rodenstock is also pretty entertaining. What do you think?