A camera recorded Rudy Kurniawan, twenty-six years old but looking young enough to be carded, as he attended a Christie’s wine auction in Los Angeles, a catalog of fancy wines in his lap. The rare Asian among older white males, he wore a caramel-colored leather jacket, zipped up almost to the neck. His straight black hair is of modest length, and his sideburns just brush his ears. His eyes are dark and sharp behind black-rimmed eyeglasses. The auctioneer had just gaveled down a prize lot of wine that might have been made many decades ago by a callus-handed French farmer who would have been gratified to get a buck per bottle. In this year of 2003, somebody in this room had just bought it for thousands of dollars. Kurniawan turned to the person on his left. “Dude,” he said, “I drank that wine on Thursday night. Now I feel bad. Can I refill the bottle and put the cork back in?”
Kurniawan flashed a smile and chuckled to himself.
Seekers of pulse-quickening wine often come by their passion not gradually but by epiphany. At a certain moment, the contents of their glass whisper intimacies straight to their soul. Most likely, the transformative wine is well-aged bordeaux or burgundy. In Kurniawan’s case, he claimed it was a “cult” Napa Valley cabernet sauvignon called Opus One, vintage 1996. To qualify as cult, a wine needs to be ultra-ripe, ultra-high-priced, and, because demand often exceeds supply, extremely difficult to acquire. If you want it direct from the winery, you may have to go on a waiting list—or even go on a waiting list to get on the waiting list.
A Wine Spectator review written four years after the vintage described 1996 Opus One as “bold, rich, and leathery, delivering tiers of currant, mineral, spice and sage.” Kurniawan ordered the bottle, so the story goes, at a family dinner to mark the birthday of his father, who was visiting from Indonesia.
Something about that bottle clicked open a previously inactive sensory circuit in Kurniawan. Wasting no time, he embarked on an informal crash course, learning all he could about wine. He began to show up at wine tastings at shops in and around Los Angeles.
Because Indonesians of Chinese ethnicity are scarce at West Coast rare wine tastings, Kurniawan was easy to notice and remember. Tapping into a shadowy family fortune, he bought a bounty of very expensive wine. His corkscrew was hyperactive. Elite Napa Valley reds, like that Opus One, came first on his shopping list. The more difficult they were to get, the more eagerly Kurniawan sought them. He also fancied muscle-flexing, amped-up Australian reds. As is common with wine novitiates, it was that wallop of flavor rather than a caress that he was looking for.
Kurniawan sped on to high-end bordeaux, then began a deep engagement with the intricacies of burgundy. In those early days, he was buying copiously from Woodland Hills Wine Company, a shop with a deep inventory of high-end wine located in the San Fernando Valley. Where he and his money came from, nobody knew. He was a one-off.
What he tasted, he precisely remembered. If the wine was a multi-grape blend, he seemed to be able to pick out each variety by its character. In his classic The Taste of Wine, Émile Peynaud suggested a simple way to explain the difference between average wine tasters and the truly gifted. It’s done by analogy to what the ear hears: Go to a room adjoining one where people are gathered and hold up a fine crystal wineglass. Strike the edge of the bowl with a fingernail or a spoon so that it pings. In the other room, the least sensitive listener hears only an unknown sound. One level up, a more discerning listener identifies the sound as the pleasurable ping of crystal. The gifted listener, hearing the same ping, says, “That vibration corresponds to the note E.”
She has perfect pitch. Kurniawan has it for wine.
Wine newbies often try to learn more by reading about it. Kurniawan, too, opened books, and he sucked knowledge from more experienced tasters. First and foremost, however, he educated himself by incessantly tasting.
To get it right away was Kurniawan’s gift. “I’ve seen Rudy nail ten out of twelve burgundies that he tasted blind,” the wine auctioneer John Kapon of Acker Merrall & Condit tells me. Rajat Parr, a San Francisco sommelier and winemaker, says that after observing Kurniawan at a tasting, “I was very, very impressed. He identified most of the wines blind.” Jefery Levy, a film producer and screenwriter who drank with Kurniawan, says flatly of his friend’s tasting savvy, “He was almost always extremely, unbelievably, insanely correct.”
So correct that Levy became suspicious. Levy decided to test Kurniawan at his own home, where he could set up a foolproof blind tasting. “I tried to trick him in all sorts of crazy ways. I served him wines from Bordeaux, Burgundy, Italy, Spain, California. Either he would get the country, the year, the maker, or he would get very close.”
Levy calls Kurniawan a wine “savant.” He could remember individual wines in the way Dustin Hoffman’s Rain Man could account for every card in a deck at a Las Vegas blackjack table. Had he lacked those qualities, people might have had more suspicions about him and the source of his wines.
Kurniawan declared himself a guardian of authenticity. He boasted a sharp eye for tiny details on the label, branding on the cork, or neck capsule of a trophy bottle confirming that the wine within was real or gave it away as a fake. He told the British wine writer Jancis Robinson, “When I go to restaurants and drink great wines, I’m very careful to ensure that the empty bottles are trashed and the labels are marked so they can’t be reused.” The opposite was true: Rudy was very careful to ensure that empties were returned to him with labels unmarked.
As Kurniawan’s reputation as a taster and bon vivant grew, he was also rapidly building an inventory of pricey wine. Combing the websites of fine-wine dealers in the United States, the UK, and France, he bought what he wanted, apparently free of budget constraint. At auctions on both coasts, he became known as a bidder who would raise his paddle and keep it raised until all others had lowered theirs, no matter how high the price soared.
Kurniawan boasted, early on, that his mysteriously wealthy family back home sent him an allowance of $1 million per month. In some months he spent more than that on wine purchases alone. In a buoyant market for fine wine, he could expect to resell what he didn’t keep for more than he had paid. And buoyant the market was. Between 2003 and 2006, Wine Spectator‘s Auction Index rose by 54 percent. In the first half of 2007, the index rose by another 7.4 percent. That surge correlated precisely with the period when Kurniawan was trading most aggressively.
Kurniawan had a knack for gaining the trust of wealthy collectors, whether they were corporate kingpins, investment bankers, Hollywood types, or real estate moguls. When these collectors gathered to share their treasures, Kurniawan was always the last to arrive. He was forgiven because he always brought fabulous bottles, often oversized. The key to an outsider’s entrée into these rarified tasting circles is pinpointed by Wilfred Jaeger, the physician turned venture capitalist who was already a noted collector when Kurniawan was still a boy: “If you brought a great wine, you got invited.”
“Rudy not only showed up with the goods, but he was so passionate,” says Vincent Cariati, who bumped into Kurniawan in 2002 while shooting footage for a documentary about cult winemakers in Napa Valley. Kurniawan wasn’t part of the plan, but Cariati was drawn to him and made eight hours of footage of him. “He really loved wine and engaging in conversation about it. At the time, there was not a hair of thought that this guy was anything less than genuine because he was giving so much at every level. He would walk into a restaurant with these beautiful bottles, and nothing was off. Nothing to make me second-guess. He satisfied all the receptors that any human being uses.”
Samantha Sheehan, proprietor of Poe, a tiny gem of a Napa Valley winery, remembers her first dinner with Kurniawan: “My brother, Trevor, who was wine-brokering, called me to say that they were going to dinner the next night with Rudy. I said, ‘That’s my birthday! You have to spend it with me. I want you to get me an invite.'”
The dinner hosted by Kurniawan was at wine-friendly Mozza. The details are graven in Sheehan’s memory. “Rudy wore an Hermès jacket with his name stitched into the lining and on his wrist was a magnificent Patek Philippe watch. He had brought his mother. She wore a beautiful gray cashmere sweater and she was covered in diamonds. It made such an impression on me.”
Sheehan recalls a deep-into-the-night bacchanal at the New Jersey home of a major collector. Rudy did not attend, but a bottle so rare that it could have been sourced only from him was uncorked. It was a several-decades-old bottle of the grand cru Clos Saint-Denis, a grand cru red burgundy from Domaine Ponsot, one of the region’s most admired producers. In the early hours of the morning, Sheehan found the bottle in the bushes in the backyard. It was still half full.
Beginning about 2002 and until spring 2008, as Wall Street plunder and heady real estate values made many Americans rich or richer, Kurniawan fed the hunger for oldest and rarest wine, cost be damned. How had he, still in his twenties, managed to acquire this seemingly limitless lode of introuvables? Kurniawan offered plausible, if unprovable, explanations. Early on, he claimed to have bought the cellar of a wealthy family in Florida. But even a very large private cellar could not keep on giving at the rate that Kurniawan was selling.
And so a new, more intriguing story began making the rounds: Kurniawan had acquired, possibly with a partner, a huge trove of old French wines in Europe. It was dubbed the “Magic Cellar,” or as Acker’s John Kapon called it, “THE Cellar.” Its lineage was said to go back more than a century to a time when the then-dominant French retail wine shop chain, Nicolas, purchased large quantities of the finest French wines directly from the most renowned vineyards. Barrel-aging and bottling took place in Nicolas’ own cellars. The firm held the wines patiently. When Nicolas’ cellar masters deemed these glories of French soil to be mature, they were proudly released as the holiday season approached. And they were priced affordably.
Nicolas required that proper respect be accorded to its prestige-level bottles. The catalog specified that the wine had to be decanted at the firm’s depot before it was home-delivered in an insulated basket. Under “Conditions of Sale,” the catalog stated, “VERY IMPORTANT ADVICE: Due to the rarity of these reserve wines under our deluxe tariff, we will only accept orders for immediate consumption and not for cellaring. We will reduce orders that appear to us as exaggerated.” Nicolas expected that corks would be pulled on these rarities in the season they were sold.
These wines bore a “Réserve Nicolas” strip label around the neck of the bottle and a circular red “Établissements Nicolas” or “Selection Nicolas” stamp on the main label. A rear strip label, lettered in white on a black background, instructed: “Ce vin doit être décanté” (“This wine must be decanted”). Many of Kurniawan’s rarest wines carried these markers, supporting his claim that the “Magic Cellar” drew its strength from old Nicolas stock.
The Nicolas empire was purchased from the founders’ descendants by cognac giant Rémy Martin in 1984 and resold four years later to beverage producer Castel. In 1995, Castel signaled a change of emphasis in wine marketing by creating a category called “Les Petites Récoltes” (“the Little Bottlings”). In the same year that Castel bought Nicolas, the historic Charenton-le-Pont property was sold off. Headquarters were moved to a sterile location in an industrial area near Orly Airport. Management abandoned the tradition of nurturing the pride of French vineyards in its own cellars and sold off its precious old stocks to a large Bordeaux négociant. The archive of holiday catalogs was discarded save for one set rescued by a junior employee.
“What Rudy did was brilliant,” says Paul Wasserman, son of a Burgundian wine broker who tutored Kurniawan early on in the intricacies of the region’s wines. “He exploited the fact that few people knew much about Nicolas’ former wine practices. It was rumored that in the old days the wines had been periodically refreshed and resealed with unbranded corks. That gave Rudy license to sell wines with blank corks.”
And to sell wines that might give the impression of being more youthful than they had a right to be.
Few collectors, especially those new to the game, actually knew what the real thing should taste like. “It’s surprisingly easy to fob off flawed or inauthentic wine,” says Wilf Jaeger. “At a certain point, people have drunk too much and they are not paying attention.”
Even if they are paying attention, and do question a wine, they are unlikely to “kill the buzz” at a festive table, as wine critic Allen Meadows puts it, by calling out the suspect bottle. And, as Jeremy Seysses of Domaine Dujac notes, if you are the guest of honor at a dinner at which your own wines are being proudly served, “it would be humiliating to your host if you let on that you suspect a fake.”
Wine, like a swivel-hipped running back, can be difficult to get a grip on. It is also ready to play tricks on experts and amateurs alike Controlled experiments by behavioral economists and psychologists have shown that when subjects are given two wines to taste and are told that one is expensive and the other is cheap, the former is more often preferred. Only after picking their favorite do the subjects learn that the two wines are identical. That result is based not only on preferences expressed in words. According to brain imaging done during the tastings, the subjects’ “pleasure centers” light up more actively as they taste the supposedly more expensive wine.
Kurniawan knew the truth of it: “In wine-tasting and wine-talk there is an enormous amount of humbug.”
Dr. Patrick Farrell, one of just over four hundred men and women to hold the British credential master of wine, tells of a blind tasting he witnessed in the state of Georgia at which an experienced taster mistook a bottle of Robert Mondavi Woodbridge merlot for Château Pétrus, the world’s most famous merlot-based red wine. The cost of the Woodbridge bottle was probably under eight dollars, while the Pétrus was many multiples more. Truly, a humiliating mistake for the taster, and a clarion warning to others who think they cannot be fooled.
Kurniawan, with his virtuoso nostrils, might have avoided at least some of the mistakes that tripped up others. He was especially respected for his ability to navigate the most intricate category of all: red burgundy. Unlike red bordeaux, which can be blended from as many as five different grapes (cabernet sauvignon, merlot, cabernet franc, petit verdot, and malbec), red burgundy is built from one grape only: pinot noir.
The flavor profile of wine made from one variety could be expected to keep to the straight and narrow. Instead, red burgundy is quicksilver and moody, nuance in motion. It’s an elixir that has foiled many a taster. The network of the Côte d’Or’s 1,300 individual climats, stretching for thirty-five north-south miles, is dauntingly complex—far more so than the division of Bordeaux into many fewer designations. Each Burgundian vigneron swears by the individuality of the vines he or she tends. Nobody can know them all, certainly not Kurniawan, who never set eyes on Burgundy. In the end, it was his imprecise knowledge of a particular domaine’s history that tripped him up. It happened amid extreme merriment, one spring evening, in New York.
The mistakes that he made, minuscule and highly arcane, upended his life. Also upended would be the practices and pleasures of seekers after rare old wine.
“Rudy took the innocence away from what we do,” says Allen Meadows. “I’ll be pissed off at him for that for the rest of my life.”