Rudy Kurniawan’s Trial

A Multi-Part Feature on the trial of Rudy Kurniawan, including the transcripts, testimony and evidence that put the largest wine counterfeiter of our time behind bars.



The day opened with the Government resting.

Witness: C Robert Collins

The defence opened by calling Cornelius Robert Collins.  Robert Collins has a wine importing business, and private clients worldwide for whom he obtains wine.  He has been involved in the wine business since 1976, starting as the wine buyer for Ernie’s Wine Warehouse in San Francisco, and then to Draper & Esquin, a large retail store in San Francisco, that had an importing and wholesale licence.  It had importing relationships with Comte de Vogüe, Domaine Roumier, and Louis Latour.  He was there for two years, before setting up a wine consultation business in San Francisco, although he continued to do work with Draper & Esquin.  He would attend auctions in London or in the US on their behalf, and select the wines that they would purchase.  This included authenticating wines.  He was looking for details on provenance, and for wines that would sell well in California.  Provenance is important because it is a good indicator of how good the wine will be.  It plays a role in determining authenticity.  If you can identify where the wine has been all its life, it increases the value of it.  If it is missing, you need to do investigation on the bottle, but it doesn’t rule out the sale of a bottle.

Collins confirmed that he did investigations on bottles, and had been doing so since 1976.  He had in that time rejected wines, and gave as an example a DRC Montrachet he inspected in 1976 that had an improper appellation controlee name on it.  Mooney asked him to confirm that counterfeit wines had, therefore, existed since 1976, which Collins did.

Collins then described his procedure for authenticating a wine.  He starts with looking at the label and the placement, and for any discrepancies from labels he has seen previously from these properties.  He then looks at the ullage, followed by the cork and the capsule.  He examines the bottle itself and how it was manufactured, and at the punt.  Finally, he looks at sediment and any foreign objects that might be in the bottle.

Mooney then asked Judge Berman to grant C Robert Collins qualification as an expert witness, which Judge Berman did.  Collins then confirmed he had looked at some of the wines in issue in the case, although not all of them, and that he had not been hired to do any other examination of wines other than the specific exhibits.

Collins said that the most counterfeited wines he saw were, in Bordeaux, Petrus, followed by Lafite, Mouton-Rothschild, Latour and Margaux.  (No Le Pin?).

The major shift for the auction market was when the London auction houses were approved to run auctions in the US in 1978.  It increased the sales that were done to private clients over commercial clients, because the wines no longer needed to be imported under federal regulations by the individual.  Under the old system, bottles would have had to have been imported by a specific assigned importer; after that, any small liquor store or restaurant could become a small independent importer.

In the 70s there was no Asian market, which really arose when Hong Kong authorised auction houses to set up shop there, and eliminated import duty on wine, which Collins claimed took place in the late 90s.  (It was actually 27th February 2008.  Credibility gap?)  This led to another step change in the size of the market.

Collins said he can sometimes determine whether or not a wine is authentic just from the catalogue.  He named a recent auction where he was not allowed (by the auction house) to examine the wines beforehand, but in the catalogue he had serious reservations about because the serial numbers were not appropriate for that particular wine, and in one case the vintage label was very different from the central label.  When asked if anyone buying wine at auction should employ someone like him, he replied that all of the major auction houses represent themselves as fully vetting the wine they sell.

Mooney asked Collins if, looking at Exhibit 3-4 (purporting to be a bottle of Montrachet, and the one that earlier Michael Egan had said resembled a sample from a urology department) he would recommend the purchase of that bottle to a client.  Collins replied “No”.  He explained this was because of the colour, and also because he just does not think that, excellent as they are, Montrachets have the capacity to age for 60 years or more.

Mooney then showed Collins exhibit 4-1, the double magnum of 1947 Petrus, which he had previously examined and determined to be counterfeit.  He expressed some amazement that this needed authentication, in that just a minimal knowledge of the chateau would demonstrate that it had been faked.  For example, the label looks as if it has faded, but if you run your finger down it, it’s the same texture, which means that the aged look has been copied onto the paper.  The colour is not correct.  The texture is not correct.  It is missing important things like “mis en bouteille au chateau”, it indicates that it has been imported into the US but there is no volume and no alcohol printed, which means it would have been subject to a $5000 fine from the BATF.  In addition, the cork, the bottle and the capsule are wrong.  Mooney replied “So other than the bottle, the label, the capsule and the cork, it looks fine.”  Collins called it an amateur fake, and wondered why anyone would pay money for a bottle of wine that looked that way.

Mooney then asked Collins to look at Exhibits 7-2, 7-3 and 7-4.

Collins determined these bottles were not real, although he acknowledged they were sophisticated counterfeits.  He believed that a person without the detailed knowledge he personally had of Domaine Roumier would be fooled by these bottles.  He has a record of about six different labels used on Domaine Roumier, and although this is similar to one of the labels they used, it didn’t have certain details that this one has, like Domaine Belorgey, and Appellation controlée.  He believed that someone who bought and later resold that bottle could be forgiven for not realising it was fake.  He also thought that if someone bought it, and copied the label because he wanted to have copies of the label, that person could be forgiven that error.

Collins then turned to the pair of 1962 Romanée-Conti magnums, and noted that he did not believe these were authentic.  The bottles were supposed to be the same thing, but looking at the strip labels, there was an important difference in contents: the first had 3 pints and 2 fluid ounces, and the second six pints and 3 fluid ounces.  In his words, “somebody is lying”.  The imprinted five-digit serial number looks good, but the bottles have two different kinds of glass.  In addition, DRC was one of the first to cork-brand their wines specifically, and these do not have them.  Furthermore, the ullage in one of the bottles is not consistent with a wine bottled in 1962, even if it had been kept under the best cellaring conditions.  Collins noted that his focus was in particular on the import labels, because those have to be a certain format and contain specific information, by legal regulations.  Given that these wines purported to be imported by Wildman, it was not conceivable there would be such errors on them.  He agreed that a collector might be fooled into buying them, and reselling them.

Collins told the court that nearly all the bottles he had examined would be considered fake.  He had indicated after he did the inspection that he had some issues he wanted to clear up, such as the use of the name Domaine Belorgey on the Roumier wines.  He examined over 50 bottles and “virtually none” was authentic.  (What does “virtually none” mean, I wonder?  None, perhaps?)  The quality of the fakes varied, from obviously duplicated later, modern manufacture of supposedly old labels, and other issues, such as on the Domaine Ponsot labels.  These all looked as if they came from a single source, and a single print run, for labels of different years and types.  In addition, the supposedly similar bottles had completely different model codes, glass colour, etc. and this was beyond what was normal for the domaine at any time.

Mooney asked if they looked like the work of one counterfeiter or many.  Collins replied that on the labels alone there were three different types of counterfeiting being done – genuine labels, reproduced labels, and labels from a source that handles Ponsot wines.

Mooney asked if he, as a layperson, bought wine at auction without the assistance of an expert, was he likely to end up with counterfeits.  Collins said that it would depend what he was buying; the counterfeits tended to be of the higher value wines.  In Burgundy, the situation is quite complex, and via negociants, metiage and domaines, the wine from a single vineyard could end up with many different labels, and yet still be authentic.  The principal targets for counterfeiting would be wines Robert Parker gave 100 points to, which would start with DRC, but there are many.

C Robert Collins, cross-examination

Jason Hernandez cross-examined the witness.  Collins confirmed that having good provenance for a wine was important even as far back as the 70s, but that it had become even more important in the past 10 or 11 years.  One of the reasons for this was that it helped a seller get the best price.  Provenance is, therefore, an important way to ensure authenticity.

Collins confirmed that some of his clients have very high end cellars, and he has helped them go through their collections, and has constructed the cellars for many of these people.  In doing so, he will often ask for their records of purchases, which helps to authenticate and assess the wine; these are frequently provided.

Collins confirmed he had examined about 50 bottles, and had concluded that nearly all were counterfeit.  Some, such as the double magnum of 1947 Pétrus, were worse fakes than others.  In particular, he seriously questions whether there ever was such a thing as a double magnum of Pétrus in 1947.  It was likely to have been much more of a cash flow wine than something people would have made for collectors.

Sources of information about a wine would include other passionate collectors, books, magazines, the internet, and Collins would not only expect but would recommend that someone who is very passionate about wine to seek out some or all of these resources to learn about it.

Collins confirmed that he had said that among the wines most likely to be counterfeited, Chateau Pétrus and DRC were high up on the list.  The high value wines are most likely to be counterfeited, and the place he had seen the most examples of counterfeit Pétrus was Las Vegas.  He confirmed that his clients were aware that wines were counterfeited, and were vigilant and concerned about buying counterfeit wine – which is why they retained his services.

Hernandez directed Collins’s attention to the 1923 Domaine Roumier, Exhibit 7-3, which Collins confirmed he considered a sophisticated fake.  Hernandez remarked that the Domaine was founded in 1924, and Collins agreed.  Hernandez wondered how this could be a sophisticated fake when it was from a year before the domaine existed.  Collins then mentioned the war.  He thought it would not be completely unheard of to have transferred wines from other places.  He also questioned how many people would know if a 1923 bottle came from Domaine Roumier or not.  Collins reiterated that he thought it was a sophisticated fake because of the label.

Hernandez asked if Collins owned a book by Clive Coates MW, called Cote d’Or.  He said he did, as did many of his clients, together with a book by Anthony Hanson MW called Burgundy, printed in 1967 with reprints (and recently completely revised – well worth a read if you have not got it).  Hernandez asked what year the Coates book would say Domaine Roumier was established; Collins confirmed 1924.

They then discussed metiage, or share-cropping arrangements, with Collins explaining how this works, and how vineyards that are not owned by a domaine may nonetheless produce wines that carry the domaine’s labels.  So Hernandez noted that the book did not say that there was any private arrangement between Belorgey and Roumier prior to 1952; it says that they got the property in 1952.  He asked Collins if he still thought it was a sophisticated fake, even though the vintage is a year before the domaine was established, and the grapes come from a plot of land for which there was no relationship until 29 years later.  Collins said that if Hernandez was saying it wasn’t sophisticated enough, he would reply that the average consumer was completely lost in the conversation.  However, if Hernandez wanted him to just say it was a fake, he would do.  (Mr Collins was clearly getting a little tetchy at this point.)

Hernandez reminded Collins of his testimony, that someone who was buying wine at auction is going to end up with a fake.  He asked whether another way to get a fake in a collection was to make it, and Collins agreed.  A third possibility would be to buy it from someone else.  Jason Hernandez pointed to the 11 bottles on the evidence table, and asked if Collins could tell the court where the defendant bought the fake bottles from.  Collins replied he had no idea; he had not examined the defendant’s purchase records or emails.  He had no direct knowledge of the defendant using email to purchase wine or to buy and sell wine.

Hernandez then asked Collins if he had a company called Old Vine Imports, his email address at which was, which Collins confirmed.  Hernandez then asked him to look at an email exchange, between Kurniawan and Collins, in which they talk about the wines that are going to be sold to The Wine Hotel, a company that Kurniawan owned with Paul Wasserman.  This was in 2007, and Mr Hernandez then asked Mr Collins to confirm that he now knew based on his own personal business dealings with Kurniawan that the defendant used email to buy and sell wine.

They then discussed Patriarche.  Although there are some wines in the Patriarche cellars that Collins would very much like to own, he acknowledged that there are not a lot of their wines sold at auction at, for example, Christies or Sotheby’s.

Collins confirmed that he had known Kurniawan since at least 2007, because of their business relationship, and in the course of that relationship had gone out to two dinners with him, a German wine tasting that the witness put on at a Beverley Hills restaurant the name of which he could not recall, and one put on by a mutual friend, in Hollywood.  He had not been out to dinner with the defendant at RN74 in San Francisco.  He confirmed he had been out to dinner with an employee from The Wine Hotel, Dan Perrelli, and he knew Kurniawan‘s business associate, Paul Wassermann.  Mr Wassermann had worked for C Robert Collins at one point.

Hernandez then asked if Collins had ever seen any pre-1982 Ponsot Clos Saint Denis in the wine marketplace.  He had not – neither at auction, nor traded nor in any public forum.  The same was true for 1923 Roumier.  He had also never heard of a collector from Asia named Pak Hendra.  Thus, he had no testimony that could like the fake bottles shown to purchases made by Kurniawan.

Collins denied knowing having followed the case, and that the government had offered a great deal of evidence that it alleged was used to make counterfeit wines.  He claimed to have not been shown anything; to have only authenticated wine.  Hernandez asked him to step down to the evidence table, and showed him a number of exhibits that had already been admitted to evidence, including Exhibit 1-182, a bag of labels of Roumier Bonnes-Mares Domaine Belorgey, 1923.

Collins then said he could not offer an opinion on whether this was the same as the label on Exhibit 7-1, and that he would need a lot more time to offer a professional opinion on the labels.

Hernandez also showed him Exhibit 1-299, a stack of hundreds of Reserve Nicolas stamps; Exhibit 1-128, stamps replicating information that would go onto corks; 1-163, a stencil for DRC cases; and 1-172, bags of wax sticks.  Collins said he had never seen this kind of wax used to seal bottles.  Hernandez then showed him 1-101, which Collins said was a corking device, to put corks back into bottles.

Collins then returned to the stand, and confirmed he had not seen that evidence before.  He did not think that having seen it would have changed his opinion on whether the fake wine was purchased or produced.  (Really?)

Hernandez asked if that was not exactly the type of material that one would find in a wine counterfeiting operation.  Collins replied he had not been in any of those recently, so he could not tell him.  He accepted that he had spent his adult life authenticating wines and trying to spot fake bottles.  He said that the items he had been shown were “the kind of things that you could or could not make wine with”.

Hernandez then asked if Collins recalled, in the pre-trial hearing, saying that he thought he was more knowledgeable than the defendant.  He quoted the following interchange:

“Q: Do you think he [i.e. Kurniawan] had the same understanding of wine or the same degree of knowledge?

A: Without seeming egotistical, I’ve been at it for a very long time.  Opinions are like noses when it comes to wine: Everybody has one.  But I feel confident in my own.”

Collins confirmed he remembered this, and agreed he felt confident in his own opinion.  Hernandez then asked if it was true that in the past he had asked Kurniawan‘s opinion about wine.  Collins said that he had asked lots of people’s opinion, and that he did not think it reflected negatively on his own ability.  Hernandez asked him just to confirm if he had or not.  Collins replied that he did not recall a specific time, but he expected that Hernandez could assist him.  Hernandez referred him to Exhibit 103, which was an email Collins had sent to Kurniawan on July 18 2007, asking for Kurniawan‘s opinion on some Burgundies that he, Collins, had just ordered.  Collins replied that this was a tasting that Paul Wassermann had just been to; it was a polite way of seeing if he wanted to buy anything.

C Robert Collins, re-direct

Jerome Mooney asked whether, when he communicated about the Burgundies in July 2007, Collins had already decided to import the wines.  Collins confirmed he had already decided.  The nature of the question was not to see if Kurniawan thought he should, but that, having decided to buy them, he wondered if Paul Wassermann and The Wine Hotel might like to buy any.  There were a number of other private clients and restaurants with whom he also communicated on the matter.

Mooney then noted that Collins had been in the business a long time, and he confirmed it was over 35 years, although he noted that he was still acquiring knowledge, and hoped he would continue to do so until he died.  He does not assume he has all the answers.  He agreed that it would have been easier to have made mistakes back in his early years than now.

They discussed Patriarche wines, and that it was a long-established firm with extensive cellars, including Hospices de Beaune wines in particular, as they have been stalwart supporters of the auction.  There are some good drinking wines.  Like virtually all of the negociants, they are not the wines elitists would want to be drinking, but to dismiss them completely would be “a gross disservice to the whole concept of Burgundy wines”.  He stressed that looking at the evidence in this case, one gets the impression that Burgundy is only for people with unlimited funds, that there are only a few places you should bother with, and the rest is unimportant, whereas the reality is that the small domaines would not exist without the big negociants, for cash flow and security.

He explained the grey market – a parallel market where someone can buy directly bottles of wine from any source in Europe, and then import it without using the primary importation system.  Primary importers do have the benefit of guaranteeing that the wines come directly from the domaine in question.  The grey market is the opposite.

Mooney then asked if a collector purchased the 1923 Bonne Mares, and put a picture of it on the front of an invitation, if that meant he was an idiot.  Collins said he would not refer to someone who did that as such.  Collins confirmed he had done research to ascertain it was a fake bottle, but did stress he had probably erred on the side of caution.

Mooney then asked about reconditioning.  Collins agreed that a recorker could be used for reconditioning.  He had known individuals to recondition wines, and had done so himself.  (People not to buy from, then…)

The defence rested.


Click here for part 14.