Wine Crimes

Counterfeiting, vandalism, arson. Here’s a rundown of some of the more notorious “wine crimes” that have been in the news recently…

Wine Collector Indicted for Counterfeiting
In May 2012, Rudy Kurniawan, a collector of fine and rare wines who represented himself as an expert skilled at detecting counterfeit wine, was arrested on charges that he had tried to sell counterfeit wine that, if genuine, would have been worth $1.3 million. Much of his collection, including some bottles of the more than $35 million worth of wine he sold in 2006 alone, are alleged to be counterfeits. If convicted of the charges, he faces jail time of up to 100 years.

When the FBI arrested Kurniawan at his home, they found extensive evidence of his fraudulent scheme. Discoveries included bottles of inexpensive Napa Valley wine soaking in the kitchen sink (so the labels could be removed), thousands of photocopied labels for top vintages (including 1950 Pétrus and 1947 Lafleur, Lafite, and Romanée-Conti), detailed instructions for fabricating labels for 1962 Domaine Ponsot Clos de la Roche, sealing wax, old corks, and rubber stamps with vintages and chateaux names.

The scheme started to crumble when Laurent Ponsot discovered Kurniawan was selling counterfeits of his Clos St. Denis Burgundy. Kurniawan was attempting to sell wine from the 1945 and 1959 vintages. Mr. Ponsot knew they were fakes because the wine was first produced in 1982.

Phreet Bhara, United States Attorney, said in a press release: “Mr. Kurniawan’s days of wine and wealth are over, if the allegations in this case are proven. As alleged, Rudy Kurniawan held himself out to be a wine aficionado with a nose for a counterfeit bottle, but he was the counterfeit, pawning off prodigious quantities of fraudulent wine himself to unsuspecting auction houses and collectors.”

Vineyard Vandals
In March 2012, about 2,000 young vines at an estate in Bordeaux’s Médoc subregion were vandalized during the night, causing thousands of euros in damage. Only about one third of the plants may be able to produce fruit again. The fruit from the vines were to be used for the 2013 harvest. Several months earlier, a similar crime occurred in Hawke’s Bay, New Zealand when about 500 vines were damaged during the night. It is expected that those plants, which were about five years old, will recover after a year’s time.

Wine producer SCEA Atlantide lost its entire production, worth an estimated 1.5 million euros, in January 2011 when vandals drained vats containing about 100,000 litres of Bordeaux claret 2009 and 2010 and also Bordeaux supérieur 2009. These wines were to be presented at a competition in Paris the following month. In October 2011, a winery in New South Wales, Australia suffered a similar fate when vandals drained ten tanks, destroying 490,000 liters of wine worth more than AU$800,000.

Arsonist Sentenced for Destroying $250MM of Wine
In February 2012, 63-year-old Mark Anderson was sentenced to 27 years in prison for fraud, tax evasion and arson; he was also ordered to pay $70.3 million in restitution. Anderson set fire to the Wines Central warehouse in Vallejo, CA where he stored wine for clients, including collectors, well-known wineries and boutique producers. The October 2005 fire destroyed 4.5 million bottles of primarily premium wine conservatively estimated at $200 to $250 million. Ninety-five Napa Valley wineries were affected, some losing all of their production from certain vintages. Many of the wineries were small family-run businesses that housed their complete inventory at Wines Central because they lacked storage capacity.

Anderson set the fire to destroy evidence that he had embezzled clients’ wine. A month before the fire, he was indicted after several of his clients reported their wine missing. In November 2009, he pled guilty to 19 counts in an indictment alleging arson, mail fraud, use of a fictitious name, tax evasion and interstate transportation of fraudulently obtained property. He also admitted he failed to report more than $800,000 in income from the sale of the embezzled wine, thereby avoiding $290,000 in taxes. 

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