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Rare wine dealer pleads not guilty to fraud in US

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(Globalpost/GlobalPost)

Rudy Kurniawan, once hailed as one of the world's most influential rare wine dealers, pleaded not guilty Wednesday in a US court to charges he was passing off ordinary bottles as expensive vintages.

The Indonesian-born Kurniawan entered his plea in a federal court in New York 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 slightly built, boyish 36-year-old, was brought into court wearing a beige detention center uniform. His appearance was a world away from his life prior to being arrested in California last year, when he was a superstar of the high-end wine business.

Mixing in circles where a single bottle of red might cost tens of thousands of dollars, Kurniawan -- also nicknamed "Dr Conti" and "Mr 47" -- amassed expensive contemporary artwork, Patek Philippe 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, from 2004 until February 2012 Kurniawan was running a scam that depended on a veneer of sophistication, but was utterly simple.

Moneyed collectors trusted his reputation for unparalleled expertise, so allegedly all he had to do was print fake labels, or soak off the real ones from empty bottles, and make the switch with store-bought wines.

From there, his persuasive salesmanship was all that was needed, fooling the likes of US billionaire Bill Koch, who happens to be involved in a separate civil suit over wine fraud in the same Manhattan court house.

Allegedly turning his California home into a "counterfeit wine laboratory," Kurniawan "mixed and blended lower-priced wines so that they would mimic the taste and character of rare and far more expensive wines," the indictment says.

"Kurniawan poured his creations into empty bottles of rare and expensive wines," the charges read, and then "created a finished product by sealing the bottles with corks and by outfitting the bottles with counterfeit wine labels."

Among the allegedly fake sales Kurniawan made were a double-magnum of a phony 1947 Chateau Petrus for $30,000 in 2005 and a bottle of purportedly 1934 Domaine de la Romanee-Conti sold for $12,925 the following year.

But Kurniawan's golden touch was publicly tarnished in April 2008, when he attempted to auction 97 bottles of what he said was wine from the acclaimed Domaine Ponsot winery in Burgundy, France, in New York.

The lot was abruptly withdrawn from the auction after obvious problems became apparent -- including one bottle dated 1929, when Domaine Ponsot only began bottling in 1934.

"At least 84 of the 97 bottles of the Domaine Ponsot wines were counterfeit," the indictment charges.

In February 2012, Kurniawan is alleged to have tried to sell a consignment of purportedly Domaine de la Romanee-Conti and Domaine Comte Georges de Vogue at auction in London, with an estimate of $889,750. However, skeptics alerted the auction house and the lots were withdrawn from the sale.

At his arrest the following month, the FBI discovered supplies of bottles, labels, corks and other gear said to have been used in preparing fake vintages -- minus the real wine.

On Thursday, lawyers in the civil case brought by Koch were expected to make closing arguments before the jury is left to decide.

Koch is suing another wealthy collector, Eric Greenberg, over wines that he bought and says turned out to be fake.

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