In episode eleven we explore the complex and fascinating area of wine fraud. Although there are many cases of fraud which happen at the lower end of the market; our production team were particularly drawn to a story which shook the fine wine world. The most recent high profile case of fraud involved Indonesian-born Rudy Kurniawan and it contains all the elements of a sensational crime story – think a geeky version of The Thomas Crown Affair. An individual’s obsessive passion to be accepted by high heeled, discerning drinking society turns into a slippery slope of swindle and deceit. But is it as simple as that? The case of Rudy is a fascinating one – partly as it reveals the precarious nature of buying wine from a secondary market. But ultimately it reveals the often more precarious psychology and motivations of the actual fine wine buying circles themselves.
We really wanted to portray this story in as balanced a light as possible and therefore on the show we interviewed three people caught up in this scandal, all with different viewpoints on the case. We also wanted to have Rudy’s ‘voice’ in the story. This proved a little trickier as he was already in prison. Therefore the framework for this episode is based on the letter he wrote to the judge in his case before he was sentenced. In doing this, we hoped to show this story not as a simple paradigm of good vs evil. Life is not that simple; especially in the nebulous world of secondary markets for luxury goods.
What everyone can affirm is that from 2004 to 2012, Rudy engaged in a systematic scheme to defraud collectors and others by selling counterfeit bottles of rare and expensive wine. In the episode, we see a picture of Rudy’s fake wine factory which he set up at his home in California. In the house which he shared with his mother, he would use empty rare bottles, print fake labels and spend thousands of dollars on traditional French wax. There he would buy large stocks of négociant Burgundy and re-label them as more expensive wines. Maureen Dooney, a wine fraud investigator describes him as ‘a mad scientist’ with his liquid concoctions. He was determined to be a big player in Southern California’s legendary and extremely elitist drinking circles. He enjoyed the celebrity status and attention. As his letter poignantly expresses, ‘my passion was all-consuming – I lost myself in it.’