Rudy Kurniawan sat with his back to the gallery, his Men’s Warehouse suit bunching up below his neck. Some have said he’s lost weight since he’s been in jail; never having seen him before, I can’t confirm that. But he is a slight man with a young face behind his thick-framed, black glasses.
And it was a dour face today at the US District Court in lower Manhattan. In case you haven’t heard, Kurniawan is standing trial this week, with the Department of Justice accusing of selling counterfeit wines. Although one of the auctions in focus, Acker’s “Cellar II” sale in October 2007, grossed almost $25 million, the amount of fake wine he is alleged to have sold is $1.3 million. Read more…
So much is underwater these days, from homes that are below their cost basis to homes stricken by Hurricane Sandy. Given this backdrop, it seems almost trivial to talk about lost wine. But that is our beat and there’s a big case that has bubbled up to page one of the NYT today.
The case involves missing wine and high-profile individuals slinging lawsuits. Sound familiar? Well, this is not a counterfeiting case. In fact, it is the story of WineCare, a wine storage facility that has an estimated 27,000 cases in its facility. The cellars were flooded during Hurricane Sandy and collectors have been denied access to either their wines or even surveillance video to show how much damage has been done. According to the story, Keith McNally who was forced to buy $2 million of wine for his restaurants after his wine stored at WineCare became inaccessible. One collector, the hedge fund manager Donald Drapkin, estimates the value of his wine at the facility was $5.2 million. WineCare has now filed for a bankruptcy reorganization that includes moving the remaining wines to a location in New Jersey.
The WineCare web site, still operation, states, “WineCare Storage LLC is committed to excellence in every way, in our work ethic, in the services we provide, and in our relationships with our clients, vendors, employees, related industries and communities.”
Just out of curiosity, do those who advise wine as an alternative investment ever mention the perils of collecting?
“More than a Flooded Cellar. A Vintage Mystery.” [NYT]
Charlie Trotter has been sued for selling a fake wine. In the complaint, Bekim and Ilir Frrokaj allege that they contacted Trotter about purchasing a magnum of 1945 Domaine de la Romanée Conti from the restaurant’s cellar (the restaurant closed last August). They allege that Trotter told them to book a table at the restaurant and discuss it with him over dinner. On June 15, 2012 they dined at the restaurant. Here’s an excerpt from the complaint:
During dinner, Charlie Trotter and the sommelier explained the rarity and value of the DRC magnum to Benn and Ilir. Charlie Trotter and the sommelier also spoke about wines from the Domaine de la Romanee-Conti estate and how those wines are some of the rarest and most valuable in the world. A Charlie Trotter’s employee negotiated the price – $46,227.40 – with Benn and Ilir. Based on Defendants’ representation of the rarity and value of the DRC magnum, Benn and Ilir agreed to purchase it. Ben and Ilir paid Charlie Trotter’s $40,000 in cash and $6,227.40 by credit card for the DRC magnum.
They continue that their insurance provider required an outside authentication of the bottle, during which they discovered that DRC didn’t bottle any magnums in 1945. They are demanding a refund, damages in excess of $30,000, court fees, and reimbursement of some expenses including travel to Chicago.
Charlie Trotter told the Chicago Tribune: “It was a disgruntled client who probably paid a lot more money (for the bottle) than he’s ever paid before,” Trotter said. “It’s buyer’s remorse.”
A jury in Manhattan sided with Bill Koch in his lawsuit over 24 counterfeit wines. The collector extraordinaire and energy magnate had sued Eric Greenberg, a wine collector who at one point had a cellar of 70,000 bottles, for selling him the counterfeit bottles. The jury awarded Koch $379,000 in damages to cover the fraudulent bottles and will reconvene this morning to see consider punitive damages.
Bloomberg has the full story including some of Koch’s comments after the trial:
“I absolutely can’t stand to be cheated. Now we got one faker so we’re marching down our hit list of fakers. This is just a start.”
“Millions if not tens or hundreds of millions of counterfeit wines are sold every year. The counterfeiters don’t want anyone to know, for $100 they make it and mark it up to $15,000, I myself paid $100,000 for a counterfeit wine. To me the whole industry is corrupt.”
“What Greenberg did was treat me and Zachys the way you treat mushrooms–kept in the dark and fed manure.”
“I’m thirsty, I want a glass of wine,” Koch said before repairing to restaurant Daniel. “And if it’s not a good bottle, I’m going to sue them.”
The Justice Department filed some photos in their wine counterfeiting case against Rudy Kurniawan. Don Cornwell, a collector and attorney who has been actively following the goings-on, posts the six pictures that the government filed in their latest brief to rebuff Kurniawan’s claim that they entered his house illegally.
While the stacks of boxes, packed and ready to go in the front hall is pretty damning (would love to know where they were headed), there’s got to be a metaphor in the 17 unlabeled bottles lying on the treadmill. They just keep going around and around…
The S&P 500 and gold have outperformed fine wine as an investment over the past few months. But the correlation is most notable between wine and the Shanghai composite as the above chart and article from Bloomberg shows. Since the April 18, 2011 high in Shanghai, wine and Chinese stocks have moved down in tandem, a glaring correlation.
This gives further evidence to our previous question of whether the specter of fraud is casting a pall on the fine wine market: it seems China is such a big driver of fine wine prices, that fraud (specifically, the apprehension of Rudy Kurniawan) has little effect.
So…why not stop treating wine like an asset class, actually pull a few corks, and trade the Shanghai composite instead if you want similar returns to wine? (Or, US stocks or gold for the best return, in hindsight.)
Don Cornwell, an attorney and wine collector, posted an admonition earlier this year not to bid on wines he considered fake wines form Rudy Kurniawan. That spawned an enormous and on-going comment thread over on wineberskers about wine counterfeiting. The thread has heated up in the last week or so Don is back with some new details.
A key part of Kurniawan’s undoing may have been bidding on a ’47 Ponsot Clos St. Denis that he thought was from Domaine Ponsot but was actually from the unrelated Christine Ponsot. Cornwell posts the actual listing in the 2004 Acker, Merrall Catalogue, showing it simply as “Ponsot,” adding, “it makes you wonder if [auctioneer] John Kapon ever really looked at the bottle in question.” Cornwell points out that Kurniawan engaged in a bidding war with another collector, who also may have thought it was a Domaine Ponsot bottling.
Then Cornwell publishes excerpts from sealed depositions, now public, from Bill Koch’s suit against Eric Greenberg. It’s confusing but Greenberg got into wine in a big way, quickly amassing a wine collection of over 60,000 bottles. And then just a few years later, for “health-related reasons,” he whittled the cellar down to a mere 20,000 – 30,000 bottles. In his acquisition spree, he apparently picked up some dodgy bottles from Hardy Rodenstock (see extensive backgrounder). And Koch bought some of those at auction, which was the basis for his suing Greenberg (Koch had previously won a default judgment against Rodenstock; the suit against Greenberg is still pending).
A couple of remarks stand out from the sealed court proceedings: one witness testified that “[Greenberg] said if he had counterfeit wine, he could always sell it through Acker Merrall because John Kapon would take anything.” Also, there was a death threat!
There, now you have your dose of wine counterfeiting news for the week. And more fodder for your screenplay.