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From vines to the FBI: a French winegrower on a 'crusade' against counterfeit varietals

From vines to the FBI: a French winegrower on a 'crusade' against counterfeit varietals

'I couldn't stand it': In 2008, Laurent Ponsot, a winemaker from Burgundy, in central France, discovered that a fraudster was making millions selling counterfeit wine. It will launch a global manhunt worthy of Hollywood.

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“Well, it all started on April 23, 2008 at 6:00 a.m…”: with these words, delivered before a New York court in December 2013, Laurent Ponsot began the testimony that would sink Rudy Kurniawan, the arrest of the biggest wine counterfeiter of all time.

On April 23, 2008, the winemaker read an email from an American friend. “How long have you been producing Clos Saint-Denis?” asks this lover of the great Burgundy, ready to pay tens of thousands of dollars for this famous piece that was offered at auction in New York in the years 1945, 1949, 1959… But Laurent Ponceau answered: “ We have only been producing it since 1982.”

Then the winemaker from Morey Saint-Denis (Côte d'Or), a prestigious address in Burgundy, traveled to New York and had lunch with the vendor: Rudy Kurniawan, the Chinese, Malaysian or Indonesian “golden boy.” I really dont know.

Supposedly from a wealthy family, the thirty-year-old was invited all over New York, nicknamed “Dr. Conti,” a reference to his passion for Romane-Conti, the most expensive Burgundy region in the world. Loosened “like soda bottles,” Mr. Ponsot recalled in an interview with AFP.

Confronting the wine farmer, Rudy Kurniawan gave him the phone numbers of the people who were going to give him the controversial bottles, he said. But one is a fax machine and the other is airline customer service.

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Then Laurent Ponsot decided to conduct the investigation. Because for this wine man, who was born “over a cellar” 69 years ago, “it was profound.”

“I could not bear it: this man was desecrating the spirit of wine. “I went on a crusade,” recalls the winegrower with the face of a gentleman farmer, his shoulder-length gray hair falling over an elegant jacket.

“The Magic Vault”

From hideouts to “tricks,” he says, using the language of the detective he has become, Laurent Ponsot follows the thread from New York to Singapore, Hong Kong, and then Indonesia.

The one nicknamed “Rudy” is actually Chen Wang Huang, the son of a humble Chinese grocer from a village in Malaysia, who went to study in Indonesia before living illegally in the United States. Little by little, his great knowledge of oenology brought him into the circle of the greatest amateurs.

As he recounts it in a book called “The FBI, Investigating Counterfeit Bottles,” Laurent Ponsot monitors the counterfeiter's apartment in California, tracking his every coming and going. Then he finds suppliers where the scammer buys hats, wax, stickers, etc.

“I was dealing with an ace in concealment,” he recalls. But the wine grower does not have the ability to search. He's stuck.

Until 2009. Then the FBI contacted Laurent Ponsot: he also investigated the counterfeiter and discovered that Burgundian was already on his way. So the US Federal Police asked him to share his discoveries.

On March 8, 2012, the FBI entered the forger's apartment. In a kind of “magic vault,” hundreds of bottles accumulate, thousands of forged labels and multiple recipes, such as the one used to make Château Mouton Rothschild 1945: “Half a bottle of Pichon Longueville 1988, a quarter of oxidized Bordeaux and a quarter of California wine.

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“We've never seen so many fake bottles. There must have been 20,000, including 500 from my field.

After his trial in New York at the end of 2013, the Indonesian was sentenced to ten years in prison and had to pay $28.5 million to the injured winegrowers.

For his part, Laurent Ponsot was appointed “Honorary FBI Agent.”

Rudy Kurniawan was released from prison in 2020. But “10 days after his release, I learned that he was in the bar of the Mandarin Oriental in Singapore,” a very famous luxury hotel, says Mr. Ponsot, who “keeps on the lookout.” “.

He accuses the Indonesian of “still having millions in Hong Kong.” “He's getting back in the saddle.”