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

2013 December 14
by Mike

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.

25 Responses leave one →
  1. December 6, 2014

    I savor, cause I found just what I used to be having a look
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  5. September 26, 2014

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  6. asasa permalink
    December 18, 2013

    good point mike!
    if meadows was subpoena’d initially as a hostile witness by the defense, the strategy would have been to show that even ‘industry top experts’ cannot decipher true vs fake wine, so how was an ‘non industry expert’ like rudy supposed to tell when he bought fake wines from other sources… and further build on this green image by saying that all the equipment found in his home were for personal use because he thought it was ok to refresh what he thought was real wine, for labeling purposes or whatever… again just to muddy the water for the jury. that would have been the job of the defense attorney, just to create any sort of doubt and hope that it amounts to reasonable doubt in face of overwhelming evidence… afterall, jurors have aquitted for less….

  7. December 18, 2013

    This wine world is just so not my wine world!

  8. Bill Klapp permalink
    December 18, 2013

    Earth to Bulkin: the entire discussion of Meadows is HYPOTHETICAL, and always has been. My point is that, had Meadows been called as a defense witness and had he testified on Rudy’s behalf, the prosecution would be able to impeach quite easily. And yes, the Federal Rules would allow it! If Meadows came, recanted and screwed Rudy, we would have a hostile witness situation and there would be nothing for the prosecution to impeach. The point that I was making to Mike is that Meadows is a sensible omission, not a baffling one. Showing up would be lose-lose for Meadows and Rudy, unless Meadows came on with something like all Rudy wines were great and authentic, and the trial is all a big mistake, and then the prosecution, for whatever reason, did not rip apart Meadows’s testimony…

  9. Jack Bulkin permalink
    December 17, 2013

    Impeach Meadows????? Uh, Earth to Klappy. Although the Federal Rules now do allow a Party Defendant to Impeach his own witness, what would he impeach Meadows with? “The Federal Rules allow any party to impeach a witness by means of his deposition , and Rule 607 has allowed the calling and impeachment of an adverse party or person identified with him.” There was never a Deposition taken of Meadows and Meadows is not an adverse party to Rudy K.. The only statements of Meadows besides his redacted notes in Burghound were his comments on the Auction Brochures. Sure Rudy’s Lawyer could by Direct Examination opine with Meadows about his covering up the comments made in Burghound after Rudygate became well documented, but he couldn’t cross examine Meadows about it if he didn’t like Meadow’s answers. He would be stuck with Meadows answers on direct examination. Where would that have taken him?

  10. Bill Klapp permalink
    December 17, 2013

    Nah, Jack, Meadows apparently passed out the praise for money, and quietly covered up his involvement with Rudy on his own board after the merde hit the fan. That may not be a wowza moment, but it is impeachment with a capital “I” if he felt compelled to testify that the wines he rated so highly were genuine. However, let us not forget that, at this late date, Meadows would also be free to recant and admit to the possibility that he may have been duped by brilliantly executed fakes on occasion. If he did that, his testimony would amount to nothing, because he could offer no proof that he had been duped (other than his inconclusive quibble about the 1959 Ponsot That Wasn’t)!

  11. Dan McCallum permalink
    December 17, 2013

    Well, I think where we are really going here with recent posts is a discussion of quantum physics. IE, apparently wine fakery exists simultaneously in two states (or universes?) IE, legal and illegal.

  12. Bill Klapp permalink
    December 17, 2013

    Dan McCallum has rudely and ungraciously pointed out a typo in my work product: I meant to say “Rudy cover-up on HIS [Meadows’s] board”. That should have been obvious, since everyone knows that Mike would not grant Meadows the right to perpetrate his cover-ups here. But as it takes so little to make Dan happy, I am delighted to make the correction!

  13. Jack Bulkin permalink
    December 17, 2013

    If Meadows had testified for the Defense, he would be forced to admit that he verified the authenticity of the RK Wines that he tasted by the perfect or near perfect scores that he had rated them. On cross examination by the Prosecution, he would be forced to admit that if they were not authentic, then they were made to closely simulate the authentic RC wines of the same vintage that he has previously tasted as a Professonal Critic and Burgundy lover. In other words, a professional con job of wine fakery by Rudy. Not a wowza moment for the jury or anything but a feeble counter punch in my estimation.

  14. Bill Klapp permalink
    December 17, 2013

    Mike, I understand your temptation to put Meadows on the stand, especially given that there appears to be no defense at all here. However, based upon what is known at this point, Meadows would probably have to perjure himself to help Rudy, unless he is as delusional and narcissistic as Rudy himself (and I doubt that). More importantly, he would be destroyed by the prosecution. He would be too easily impeached for his role in the Acker auctions and for the Rudy cover-up on this board. Meadows is among the last people that the defense would want to testify, not the first. And Wilfred is certainly right about the professional downside for Meadows…

  15. Bill Klapp permalink
    December 17, 2013

    Mike, don’t you suspect that it is only a matter of time before fakes of old California wines become a problem? It already seems that there is an endless stream of 1974 Heitz Martha’s, and while not old, Rudy was in the Screagle biz…

  16. Bethany permalink
    December 16, 2013

    Mike, thanks for this coverage. I’m glad you can be there as the eyes and ears of those of us who cannot. When people ask for my take on the whole thing, I’ll be quoting you: “This whole saga, and the culture of excess that spawned it, is just so contrary to the spirit of Burgundy.”

  17. December 16, 2013

    Tom, everyone insists that the 45 RC and the other wines that Rudy contributed to that particular tasting were legit. There was a lot of discussion last week about another, smaller tasting that Barzelay and Meadows attended, along with Christophe Roumier. It was a tasting of some old Roumier wines that another major collector, Don Stott, had purchased from Rudy via Acker Merrall (the two big Kurniawan sales in 2006). A number of those bottles were deemed to be fraudulent, and it is known that Stott subsequently returned a bunch of wines to Acker.

    Christina, to the best of my knowledge, Allen has not commented publicly, and probably for the very reason you mention: this is hugely embarrassing for him, and potentially toxic. As for buying older wines–old Bordeaux and old Burgundies are indeed risky, but older California, old Riojas, etc., are just fine, I think (and let’s hope it stays that way!).

    Thanks very much, David. I agree with you about tasting as a means of authentication. However, I don’t think Meadows or anyone else would be able to get away with a “yes, but” claim on the witness stand–yes, what Rudy served me was genuine, but I know that what was selling to others was fake. A minimally competent defense attorney would rip that argument to shreds, quickly.

  18. December 15, 2013

    Wilfred, thanks for dropping by and for the kind words. You are absolutely right: there’s no chance that Allen would have voluntarily testified, and I didn’t mean to suggest in my post that he would have been a friendly witness. But I think his testimony, even coerced, could have been enormously helpful to Rudy, for the reasons I explained in my post. I just don’t see a downside for Rudy in putting Allen on the stand.

    As ever, Dan, you get to the nub of the matter more succinctly and more poetically than I could ever hope to do. And hubris really is at the heart of this imbroglio; it was the fuel that propelled it forward.

    Thanks, Keith. Under questioning by Jason Hernandez, the lead prosecutor, Doug repeated what he has said before: there didn’t seem to be any problem with the 45 or with any of the wines that Rudy contributed to the tasting. As for Meadows, I keep turning this around in my head, and I can’t think of any reason why the defense would be reluctant to put him on the stand. I see almost no downside risk, while the upside potential is enormous. Strange.

  19. David Glasser permalink
    December 15, 2013

    Mike: fascinating reading, thanks for these reports.

    Regarding Allen Meadows as a defense witness…

    I don’t believe that tasting is a valid means of authentication, but that’s a complicated issue, so testimony from Meadows that Rudy provided the real thing at the tastings Meadows attended might sow some doubt among jurors. However, the prosecution could simply point out that even if those bottles were true, Rudy provided genuine bottles for the experts just to prime the pump for the sale of his fakes

  20. Christina permalink
    December 15, 2013

    Has Meadows commented publicly about the trial? Surely this is a huge embarrassment for him and could threaten his career, whether he testifies or not. And if he were subpoenaed, even against his will, his testimony could make a case for Kurniawan. And Mike, it really is shocking that more wine writers aren’t there. This story has “movie based on true events” written all over it; a screenplay could be born in that courtroom! Overall, the whole debacle is just so sad. I don’t know how anyone can buy an older, high-end bottle with any certainty anymore, unless it comes directly from the winery.

  21. Tom permalink
    December 15, 2013

    Were the bottles from these events later proved to be fake?

  22. December 15, 2013

    Great analysis. Thanks. Meadows’ absence is really mystifying. Did the defense neglect to raise the fact that Douglas Barzelay had adjudged Rudy’s ’45 Romanee-Conti legitimate as well? ( – “When it came to the ’45, I quietly held my breath, but fortunately I had guessed right, and Rudy had sacrificed a real bottle for the occasion (we all signed the label afterwards, so it could not have been reused). . . .”

  23. Dan McCallum permalink
    December 14, 2013

    Thanks Mike,

    I’ll add a philosopher’s view on the sociology of it all:

    “Hubris calls for nemesis, and in one form or another it’s going to get it, not as a punishment from outside but as the completion of a pattern already started.”
    ? Mary Midgley, The Myths We Live by

    Best / Dan

  24. Wilfred permalink
    December 14, 2013

    Hey Mike

    GREAT write up! I mean really great–appreciate the color in the commentary in terms of the ‘feel’ of it in addition to facts (those we also get from Wineberserkers, etc., but your take on things is really terrific).

    The defense simply COULDN’T call Meadows (well, technically they ‘could’ but I propose it would be legal malpractice) because Meadows wouldn’t want to testify, and would likely be hostile to them. There is nothing in this for Meadows–he could not come out of it looking good, no matter which position he took. It would either be very embarrassing for him and seriously threaten his business/standing, and/or he would be forever associated with Rudy, something no Burgundy expert would want. (I mean, does Broadbent relish being forever associated with Rodenstock? Has he ever recovered from that?) No, Meadows would never be on the defense list for Rudy, no matter how determined and capable Rudy’s Counsel. Sure, Meadows could be compelled by subpoena to testify, but he would not be a ‘friend’ to Rudy’s side. It would be professional suicide.

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