How a French winemaker put the world’s biggest wine fraudster in jail

I realised what was happening when I saw our wine on an auction list with a vintage 20 years before we started making it, said Laurent Ponsot

Winemaker Laurent Ponsot turned detective in the case against wine scammer Rudy Kurniawan; hundreds of fake bottles were seized and destroyed
Published Last updated

Laurent Ponsot is an experienced and respected French winemaker who worked for 36 years at the family vineyard Domaine Ponsot and has produced the grand cru wines Griotte-Chambertin and Clos Saint-Denis since 2017 with his own firm.

He gained international fame in 2016 when Netflix produced Sour Grapes, a documentary about Indonesian wine fraudster Rudy Kurniawan, who managed to sell millions of dollars of counterfeit wine through top auction houses. The fraudster would mix lesser quality wine, bottle and falsely label it as a grand cru.

Mr Ponsot discovered the fraud when 98 of his bottles appeared on an auction list in New York, including 12 bottles of Clos Saint-Denis from 1962 – 20 years before the wine started to be produced.

He was the principal figure involved in revealing the extent of Kurniawan’s industrialised counterfeit business and his discoveries helped the FBI catch the fraudster in 2013 and secure a 10-year prison sentence for him.

Mr Ponsot released a book, FBI: Fausses bouteilles investigation, his own tale of the story, to set the record straight around the world’s greatest counterfeit operation in the wine industry, as too much “fake news” keeps circulating, he said.

An English version is expected for 2024 and the rights have already been bought for cinema.

The Connexion spoke to him about his adventure as an accidental investigator in a story worthy of a crime novel.

Let’s start at the beginning…

I was sent an email asking if I knew that several bottles of Clos Saint-Denis from Domaine Ponsot were being auctioned in New York in the next couple of days.

These bottles were apparently produced in the 40s, 50s, 60s and 70s. The only problem was that Clos Saint-Denis only started in 1982.

You called the auctioneer but also booked a flight to New York to attend the auction, thinking the fraudster would not go through with it if you were there. Is this correct?

Absolutely. I think he would have sold every bottle except the Clos Saint-Denis if I had not attended. All were fake except one bottle, by the way.

This was the start of an investigation that lasted two years. This is when I became an investigator. This is what makes this story a detective novel.

When were you convinced it was fraud?

From day one, as soon as I laid eyes on the auction catalogue, and before I jumped on the first flight. From the very beginning I knew it was a fraud.

It took me a little more time to understand that it could have come from one or several individuals, or even from an organised crime network.

It was the biggest ever scam in the wine industry.

Read more: Property buyers in France scammed out of €26,000 by fake bank advisor

Did you get caught up in the story purely out of curiosity?

Yes, that is one part of it but not the main reason. It was not only my wines that were getting scammed – the fraud was a middle finger to winemakers and the whole industry.

I often compare myself to Don Quixote because in a spirit of naivety I ventured out not knowing where I would end up or what I would discover.

I could not accept that our passion was being ridiculed in this way.

Making wine is not an easy task. It requires patience and takes time, and relies on input from both nature and man.

Producing an outstanding bottle is about bringing together a combination of many small factors. This is what gives wine its unique spirit.

This man faked that spirit in under an hour. He put a stain on the spirit of wine. It all started there for me. It is down to principles, nothing else.

You spent €160,000 nonetheless…

That includes trips, car rentals and hotel bookings over about four-and-a-half years. But it is not about the money. Money is a good servant but a bad master. I was not guided by money.

I was there for the spirit, the passion and pleasure. My book is also meant as the final chapter of that story. I have sold the cinema rights and now I just want to move on.

Was it the first time you had to deal with scammers?

I found one fake bottle in Kuala Lumpur, in Malaysia, in the mid-90s. I was also affected by the Rodenstock scandal, that took its name from forger Hardy Rodenstock. I even found one Italian who falsified Dom Pérignon.

Forgers appeared when wines started becoming more and more expensive.

A Romanée-Conti bottle bought in the 1950s in New York for $50 was not subject to counterfeit.

However, there is a whole lot of money to be made, now that these bottles can be found for around $10,000.

Forgers do not copy cheap bottles just as they do not rip off cheap watches.

Read more: Beware new scams involving QR codes in France

It seems what has changed here is the industrialisation of fake bottles

Well, I have tried without success to find the warehouse and the workers – most probably undocumented immigrants – that have participated in that business.

Because another element of fake news would have us believe that he was producing these wines all by himself in his kitchen.

This bas**** is neither an outstanding taster nor a producer of fake wines.

It has been suggested that he had one of the most delicate palates in the world, that this is the only way he could have pulled off the scam

Except he does not. He is someone with one of the greatest denial of reality syndromes I have ever encountered.

He made up a life for himself from fabricated stories. He is not even called Rudy Kurniawan.

His strongest skill is to have an incredible memory. He absorbed the knowledge of real wine experts and accessed that expertise at very specific moments, giving the impression he was knowledgeable.

He knew the wines during testings, either because he was the organiser or because he had bribed the sommeliers. It is easier to show off when you know the wine list ahead of serving.

How did he manage to pull the wool over the eyes of professionals?

He was intelligent enough to serve real bottles during testing.

Allen Meadows, the most famous Burgundy wine critic, was served a real Burgundy. I was served real bottles; one made me shed a tear because it was so outstanding.

He baited the critics. He is a scammer, that’s all!

Read more: Signature fraud over Paris flats costs owner over €1 million

Who was just released from prison…

And he is doing it all again in Asia. But now he plays on that crook aspect and he organises tastings where he serves real and fake bottles to establish which are real and which are fake. Isn’t it crazy?

What is the main lesson you have learned from the fraud?

There is a sort of snobbishness about the wine sector nowadays, what I call buveurs d’étiquettes (label drinkers), or people who drink wine for the label rather than for the taste.

This man was a guru to very rich people, and he lured them by fabricating stories.

The other lesson is never to buy wine at auction. Buy them from supermarkets, caves, or producers. As for old bottles, there are no more in circulation.

Would this scam be possible in 2024, considering the wine market has gone global?

There might be a forger that can pull off a Pommard 1965 or a Musigny with a fake label, for instance, but nothing on such a widespread scale.

Scammers have put the brakes on now and the industry has developed systems to protect bottles from falsification.

Related articles

Hacker, peep shows, jail: the story of a French tech billionaire

$193bn: how did this French businessman get so rich?

Unregistered ‘faith healer’ in France banked up to €40,000 a month