Wine Diarist

Kurniawan Trial: Koch Unplugged, Wine Fuhrers, and A Baffling Omission From The Witness List

Some observations and comments:

-Bill Koch, Antonio Castanos, and Doug Barzelay all testified yesterday. After testifying, Koch gave an impromptu press conference in the hallway outside the courtroom. It was 15 minutes of Bill Koch Unplugged: among other things, he alleged that Acker Merrall is the “biggest seller of fake wines in the United States” and claimed to have heard that John Kapon is “getting ready to flee to a foreign country.” He shared with reporters a photo of Kurniawan’s brothers, as well as photos of Kurniawan mugging with the actors Will Smith and Jackie Chan and the singer Lionel Richie. He also displayed pictures of the so-called “sexy boys“, Jeff Sokolin and Daniel Oliveros of Royal Wine Merchants, including one of them with Robert Parker (Koch is suing Royal over the sale of allegedly counterfeit bottles). His dossier even included a photo of Oliveros’s estranged wife, the pornstar Savanna Samson (she was fully clothed in the picture).

-Laurent Ponsot, Christophe Roumier, and Aubert de Villaine testified on Thursday. It was a riveting day, but it was also sad to see three of Burgundy’s greatest vignerons on the witness stand in an American courtroom. This whole saga, and the culture of excess that spawned it, is just so contrary to the spirit of Burgundy.

-The jury seemed completely engrossed as Ponsot, Roumier, and de Villaine explained the intricacies of Burgundy and shared the histories of their domaines. That was nice to see, although with Burgundy prices already exorbitant, the last thing we need is new Burgundy fans and even greater demand!

-This is not meant as criticism, but it is astonishing to me that so few wine writers have come to watch the proceedings. The redoubtable Peter Hellman, who has done sensational reporting for the Wine Spectator, has been there every day (someone get that man a book deal). Tyler Colman caught Wednesday’s session and was back yesterday, and Elin McCoy was there Thursday. Non-wine journalists are covering the trial, but the paucity of wine writers in the gallery is mystifying.

-The testimony of Ponsot, Roumier, and de Villaine gave Kurniawan’s defense team the opportunity to play the Burgundian minefield card—to suggest that the lack of record keeping and the often ad hoc manner in which Burgundy producers labeled their bottles back in the day makes it impossible to say for certain that Kurniawan’s allegedly fraudulent wines are indeed counterfeit. But Kurniawan’s attorneys, Jerome Mooney and Vincent S. Verdiramo, didn’t pursue this line of reasoning with any consistency or rigor; they made no attempt to build a sustained argument that might create reasonable doubt in the minds of the jurors. The bumbling became downright surreal when Roumier was on the stand. Mooney brought up the Nazi occupation of France and noted that many winemakers had sought to hide their wines from the Germans. Roumier responded that none of his family’s wines were confiscated. “But your grandfather had to answer to the wine fuhrer, right?” Mooney asked, prompting lots of head-scratching and eye-rolling in the gallery. Roumier, clearly puzzled, said that the Nazis didn’t occupy his grandfather’s home and indicated that his family was pretty much left alone during the war. Pivoting from the Roumiers to wartime Burgundy in general, Mooney then asked, “Isn’t it true that a lot of strange things started happening with bottling and labels? And that in order to meet the demands the Germans were making, they started to put together all sorts of false and phony bottles to send over to the Germans?” Roumier replied with a befuddled “I don’t know.”

It was more of the same on Friday. Mooney’s cross-examinations basically consist of him repeating what the witnesses have just told the prosecutors and prompting the witnesses to then repeat it themselves; it’s the courtroom equivalent of doing donuts in a high school parking lot. But maybe that is for the best: when Mooney tried to take the discussion with Barzelay in a new direction, it was a debacle. He started asking about a dinner that he claimed Barzelay had had with Kurniawan, to which the latter had supposedly brought two bottles of the same wine, one of them a fake. Barzelay looked perplexed and said he didn’t recall any such dinner; Mooney got flustered, rifled through his papers for a moment, and then changed the subject. It suddenly dawned on me that Mooney was referring to a dinner that Laurent Ponsot and Kurniawan had had, in 2009. Anyway, that gives you a flavor of just how hapless the defense has been. It brings to mind the famous Casey Stengel line: Can’t anyone here play this game? As far as I can tell, the only doubt Mooney has succeeded in raising thus far is about his own competence. But I suppose there could be a more charitable explanation for the pathetically feeble defense: perhaps he and Verdiramo have concluded that a guilty verdict is unavoidable and are simply going through the motions. Which brings me to my next point….

-If I were defending Kurniawan, Allen Meadows would be my star witness. Few if any people tasted more of Kurniawan’s wines than Meadows, and he gave gushing reviews and high scores to many of the bottles.  Mooney seems to recognize that Meadows is a central figure in this drama; he invoked his name several times Thursday and Friday. On Thursday, the court was shown a picture of a bottle of 1945 Romanée-Conti that Kurniawan had contributed to a Romanée-Conti tasting in New York in 2007, an event attended by Kurniawan, de Villaine, Meadows, and a group of major collectors. Mooney observed that all of the attendees had signed the bottle after it was consumed, and he called attention to two signatures in particular: de Villaine’s and Meadows’s (Meadows signed his name on the neck label, putting “Allen” to the left of “1945” and “Meadows” to the right of it). Mooney went on to note that Meadows had given the bottle 100 points. True to form, Mooney made no effort to drive home the significance of that rating (i.e. that Meadows, the foremost authority on Burgundy, had judged it to be a legit bottle). But unless he really is a total nincompoop, he surely must realize that Meadows’s reviews are a potential lifeline for his client.

I’m not a lawyer, but I’ll pretend to be one for a moment. It would take the defense probably all of 30 seconds to establish that Meadows is widely recognized as the preeminent Burgundy expert (they could just show the jurors a selection of Burghound citations in auction catalogs) and that he was invited to these fancy tastings because collectors and auction houses alike coveted his imprimatur. Once on the witness stand, Meadows would have two options: he would either have to stand behind the scores that he gave to Kurniawan’s wines, or he would have to renounce them and, by extension, renounce his own claim to authority. If Meadows affirmed the validity of those ratings, it would surely sew doubt in the minds of at least a few jurors. If, on the other hand, he backed away from his reviews, jurors might well conclude that the fine wine world is a gilded cesspool, teeming with vulgarians and charlatans and critics with purchasable palates, and that Kurniawan is being made a fall guy for the sins of many.

I’m not suggesting that this is a slam-dunk strategy that would get Kurniawan acquitted; the weight of the evidence against him is pretty overwhelming. But it does strike me as the best way—probably the only way—to plant some uncertainty in the minds of the jurors. I emailed Mooney Thursday night to ask if Meadows was on the list of potential witnesses; he replied several hours later and told me that Meadows was not on the list, adding, “last I heard he was entrenched in Burgundy and out of reach of both sides.” So the defense is evidently going to rest without putting on the stand the one person whose testimony could possibly turn the case in its favor. In a truly bizarre trial, that may be the strangest twist of all.