Wine fraud trial wraps up in New York

(MENAFN- AFP) The trial of wine dealer Rudy Kurniawan concluded in New York with vigorous arguments from the defense claiming he never meant to deceive anyone in blending fake vintages.

The 12-person jury will start their deliberations Wednesday on whether the 37-year-old, once one of the top five wine collectors in the world, is guilty or innocent of fraud.

Prosecutors say Kurniawan, whose 10-year career crashed and burnt with his arrest in 2012, is an arch liar motivated by greed who made millions selling fake vintages blended at home.

The defense portray a young man who desperately wanted to fit into the richer, older world of rare wine collectors, and of a man being held up as a scapegoat.

"He wanted to be part of the club," Kurniawan's lawyer Jerome Mooney told the court in his closing arguments on Tuesday.

In buying thousands of bottles of great vintage wine each year, it was inevitable that there would be fakes among them, given the rampant availability of counterfeit wine, according to court testimony.

So what of the evidence that investigators found in the California home that Kurniawan shared with his Chinese mother?

Thousands of labels for the finest Burgundy and Bordeaux wines. Full bottles waiting to be labeled. Formulae on how to concoct vintage-tasting plonk from far cheaper wines.

"He is not educated enough to see the difference. He starts fixing bottles up he wants to improve. Should he be doing that?" said Mooney.

"Probably not. He was not doing it to defraud people. The purpose is to protect it to be drunk," he added.

The defense also took issue with the quantities of wine at stake.

In 2006, it said he sold around 12,000 bottles at auction -- a number he could never have produced in his own kitchen.

"We have never said that he only sold fake wines," retorted prosecutor James Hernandez.

The prosecution claims at least 1,000 fake bottles came from what Kurniawan allegedly called his "magic cellar" -- his kitchen laboratory at home in the Los Angeles suburb of Arcadia.

"It is an enormous amount. This was an operation on a massive scale," said prosecutor Joseph Facciponti.

Kurniawan faces up to 40 years in jail if convicted of wire and postal fraud. His sentence will be fixed by the judge if he is found guilty by the jury.

Facciponti summed up the prosecution's case by describing him as "a prolific wine counterfeiter".

"He sold wine to victims all over the world. For a while the magic worked, and he sold his fake wines for millions of dollars but there was no magic, only the defendant's lies," he said.

"Why did he tell all his lies? Because of greed that's what this case is about, the defendant's lies and his greed."

Kurniawan, wearing a dark suit, was as impassive on Tuesday as throughout the rest of the seven-day trial.

His meteoric rise during a 10-year career stemmed from his exceptional palate, but the court heard he has lived illegally in the United States since 2003 when his asylum bid was rejected.

Allegations against him first surfaced over an April 2008 auction in New York where he had offered 97 purported bottles of Domaine Ponsot for sale for between $440,500 and $602,000.

But French expert Laurent Ponsot of the acclaimed Domaine Ponsot winery became suspicious and flew to New York to ensure that auction house Acker Merrall & Condit withdrew the lot from sale.

Ponsot said he asked Kurniawan where he had got the Domaine Ponsot wine that he considered fake, but despite a series of follow-up emails and conversations got no clear answer.

After allegedly trying to sell more dubious wine at auction in London via an intermediary in 2012, Kurniawan was arrested at his home in Arcadia in March that year.


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