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Famous dealer pleads not guilty to wine fraud

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(Globalpost/GlobalPost)

Rudy Kurniawan, once seen as one of the world's most influential dealers in rare wine, pleaded not guilty Wednesday to charges he was cheating clients by passing cheap bottles off as vintage.

The Indonesian-born Kurniawan entered his plea in New York federal court after prosecutors filed a new indictment that updated existing charges against him, to which he had previously also pleaded not guilty.

Judge Richard Berman set September 9 as a tentative trial date, although this faces delay because important prosecution witnesses from vineyards may be unable to travel during the autumn grape harvest.

"That's the time like tax week for accountants, that's their busy time," prosecutor Jason Hernandez said.

Kurniawan, a slight man who was brought into court wearing a beige detention center uniform, was until his arrest last year a California-based superstar in the high-end wine world.

Mixing in circles where a single bottle of wine might cost tens of thousands of dollars, Kurniawan -- also nicknamed "Dr Conti" and "Mr 47" -- amassed expensive contemporary artwork, watches, and a vehicle fleet including a Lamborghini.

"Kurniawan rose to become one of the most prominent and prolific dealers in the United States of purportedly rare and expensive wine," the indictment against him reads.

In reality, prosecutors say, Kurniawan himself was running a scam that rested on fooling the wealthy with his expertise -- and the simple technique of putting inexpensive wine into bottles carrying the labels of legendary French chateaux.

"The defendant engaged in a systematic scheme to defraud wine collectors and others by selling and attempting to sell numerous counterfeit bottles of purportedly rare and expensive wine," the indictment says.

At his arrest, the FBI discovered what they likened to a counterfeiting factory in his home, including supplies of bottles, labels, corks and other gear to prepare fake vintages down to the last detail -- minus the real wine.

Kurniawan's lawyer previously failed to get the judge to exclude that evidence by arguing that the search was improperly conducted.

On Wednesday, the prosecutor told the court that the jury would be shown hundreds of pieces of physical evidence.

Holding up a small plastic bag, Hernandez said "there's about 150 of them (and) there are lots of things that didn't fit into bags. There are bottles, for example."

Among the bottles is a jeroboam, which holds as much as six ordinary bottles.

When Berman asked the prosecutor to describe for the record what he was talking about, Hernandez said: "It's a really big bottle of wine, judge."

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http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/news/afp/130410/famous-dealer-pleads-not-guilty-wine-fraud