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Prosecutor: California wine collector was greedy

LARRY NEUMEISTERDecember 10, 2013

NEW YORK (AP) — A prosecutor opened the fraud trial of a California wine dealer on Monday by saying greed motivated him to cheat wine collectors out of millions of dollars, but a defense lawyer said his client was the victim of widespread corruption in the resale market for vintage wines.

The differing views were offered to jurors in U.S. District Court in Manhattan during opening statements at the trial of Rudy Kurniawan, an Indonesian-born immigrant of Chinese descent who was arrested last year and accused of trying to sell more than $1.3 million worth of counterfeit bottles to other wealthy collectors.

“This is a case about greed,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Jason Hernandez said.

He said Kurniawan, 37, performed a classic bait-and-switch by letting his victims taste wines valued at tens of thousands of dollars at dinners he staged, only to later convince them to buy bottles of poor-quality French wine that he had poured into vintage-looking bottles in his Arcadia, California, kitchen.

Hernandez said Kurniawan, who’s charged with mail fraud and wire fraud, was driven by an “unquenchable thirst for luxury cars, designer clothing and the finest food and drinks in the world.” He said Kurniawan “loved living the high life and loved the attention.”

The prosecutor said Kurniawan had lived in luxury in suburban Los Angeles even after he was ordered in 2003 to leave the country.

Hernandez said that as Kurniawan’s fame grew in the business of rare wines, suspicions about him rose.

Some of his wines were pulled from a sale in 2007 after an auction house said they were fakes, and billionaire yachtsman, entrepreneur and wine investor William Koch sued him in 2009, saying several bottles he’d purchased from him were bogus.

Defense attorney Jerome Mooney portrayed his client as a scapegoat, saying he built a reputation as “the most prolific buyer of wines out there” before the dark side of the industry turned against him.

“In the wine market, there’s a lot of counterfeits and a lot of alterations,” Mooney said. “If you’re buying a lot of wine, you’re going to buy a lot of counterfeits. ... This poor guy ends up being the one who gets blamed for everything.”

The millionaire businessman, held without bail, was deemed “responsible for all the horrible things that have happened to the wine market,” the lawyer said.

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