There was talk about guns from the witness box today, in the fifth day of the Rudy Kurniawan trial. And they might as well have been smoking guns.
Of the four witnesses today that included billionaire Bill Koch, David Parker had the moment of greatest drama. Parker owns two wine business in LA that sold Rudy seven bottles of 1962 Domaine de la Romanée Conti – Romanée Conti in June 2006. Parker had his own handwritten notes on the bottles when he sold them, including the fill lines, which were all more than two inches below the bottom of the cork. The bottles with the same serial numbers later appeared at auction—with noticeably higher fills, which would greatly increase their value. The prosecutor presented those same bottles to Parker in the witness box and furnished him with a ruler. Lo and behold, the wine was only an inch or so below the corks!
“Over time wine evaporates, it doesn’t regenerate?“ the prosecutor Jason Hernandez. Parker’s reply in the negative was barely audible above the chuckling.
Bill Koch, the avid and litigious collector who has 43,000 bottles split between two wine cellars, took the stand. The silver-maned billionaire told the prosecutor about cesium testing he had done on some of the 500 or so suspected fakes in his cellar. Under cross examination, the Jerome Mooney attempted to discredit the tests, asking the qualifications of those who undertook the tests and asking if their methods were peer-reviewed and whether any witness in this trial had vouched for them.
“No, but I could get someone here right away if you want,” replied Koch to more chuckles.
After a long discussion about antique rifles (Koch is also an avid collector of Western memorabilia), Mooney then attempted to return to the theme of wine paraphernalia as decorating items. Somehow he knew that Koch has a bathroom at two of his houses adorned with empty trophy bottles, pulled corks and labels. Two days ago, Mooney suggested the defendant was possibly using the bags of corks and labels found by the FBI at the Kurniawan house to decorate. The only thing the prosecutor forgot to ask during redirect was whether Koch also collected wax, stamps, and serial numbers for his bathrooms!
Antonio Castanos, owner of Guido’s restaurant in LA, testified that he consigned wines for Rudy Kurniawan at a February 2012 auction with houses Spectrum and Vanquish. In all, he made $400,000 in fees from consigning wine for Kurniawan, he said, while Kurniwan had asked him not to divulge the source of the wines. Despite this, “everybody knew” the wines came from Rudy.
Collector Doug Barzelay testified about various events and how his suspicion grew both about Rudy and wines he supplied to the market or events. Barzelay said he emailed Laurent Ponsont to inquire about suspect wines for sale at the now-infamous Acker 2008 auction. Ponsot, Christophe Roumier and Aubert de Villaine all testified yesterday.
The prosecution will call two more witnesses on Monday morning and then likely rest. Who the defense brings to the stand remains an open question. It will be interesting to see how long the jury deliberations will take since anything more than 10 minutes would seem unnecessary at this point.
In the hallway outside the courtroom during a break, people from the gallery were shocked at the poor quality of the defense counsel. One observer called it a “Mickey Mouse defense.” Another said, “there is no defense.” Others complained about a waste of time and money for the court and everyone participating. The counsel was dealt a really tough hand; given what we’ve seen thus far, it’s amazing they didn’t try to arrange a plea before the trial started. It might be possible to raise a reasonable doubt in the mind of the jurors. But this team isn’t doing it.
Rudy Kurniawan sat with his back to the gallery, his Men’s Warehouse suit bunching up below his neck. Some have said he’s lost weight since he’s been in jail; never having seen him before, I can’t confirm that. But he is a slight man with a young face behind his thick-framed, black glasses.
And it was a dour face today at the US District Court in lower Manhattan. In case you haven’t heard, Kurniawan is standing trial this week, with the Department of Justice accusing of selling counterfeit wines. Although one of the auctions in focus, Acker’s “Cellar II” sale in October 2007, grossed almost $25 million, the amount of fake wine he is alleged to have sold is $1.3 million.
I came in late and left early so I won’t pretend this is a comprehensive account of the trial. But I did get a feel for the proceedings, hearing the prosecutors and the defense attorney cross examine a key witness, FBI special agent James Wynne.
The US Attorney is the dapper Jason Hernandez who could easily be played by a Pretty Woman-era Richard Gere in the movie version. He had excellent command of the facts and the highly detailed, multimedia presentation as swiftly as one might expect. The defense attorney is Jerome Mooney, Kurniawan’s second counsel. A casting director might put Andy Richter in for him. His questions were scattershot, with nothing hitting the mark. The jury box had 14 people in it, five men and nine women. There is only one juror who looked under 30; median age appears to be late 40s. The jurors come from diverse racial backgrounds.
The government presented their voluminous and compelling evidence in the form of bottles, corks, labels, and photos from Kurniawan’s house in LA. With a search warrant in hand, federal agents entered the house at 6 AM on March 8, 2012 and found what Special Agent Wynne called a “wine factory” from the stand. As has been disclosed previously, bottles were in various stages of repurposing, with labels being floated off in the sink, a recorking device on the premises, drawers full of labels and bottles everywhere, ranging from full to empty and even partially full. It’s hilariously apt that eighteen bottles were even on the treadmill, a metaphor if there ever was one.
Hernandez presented evidence from Rudy’s bank accounts. During a two-month period in late 2007, he spent about $4,000 procuring various forms of wax. One email exchange between Rudy and a wax vendor (some sort of stationery purveyor, as I recall), had him inquiring if the wax was akin to old French wax but the guy said it was more like Scottish wax in that it will break upon flexing. They presented invoices of his purchasing certain types of high-quality paper.
They also showed data from his personal American Express card that Kurniawan spent over $600,000 at Hermes during a two-year period (total spend on the card was about $8.5 million). The prosecution is highlighting his attraction to a life of luxury as part of their case.
They also presented an email from Kurniawan to Robert Bohr of Cru restaurant in NYC, site of the Acker auctions, requesting the empty bottles be sent via FedEx to his home in LA. He said they were for a photo shoot to commemorate the event. After receiving the box with most of the bottles broken, he sent a scathing email to Bohr and Acker.
They presented emails from Rudy to John Kapon discussing in minute detail the auction catalogues. They presented emails from Rudy to another of the staff at Acker seeking to procure “100-200 cs [cases] of cheap 80s bord [Bordeaux].”
They presented an email exchange when Jancis Robinson queried him about an article she was writing on counterfeiting and he said “I don’t keep detailed records…In Asia, we don’t keep detailed records. I throw away all my bank statements.”
The defense attorney has a hard task. But what did he do in the face of this onslaught of evidence, the metaphorical corpse and the smoking gun on display? He played small ball. He pointed out a coincidence that half the Hermes spend came around Chinese new year. He said that Rudy’s mom also had a card on the account—but the witness said these were charges to Rudy’s card. He pressed the agent on which wines were in the unmarked bottles–as if Wynne knew! He suggested that it’s the nature of collectors to keep detailed notes and memorabilia from big tastings. He even went so far as to suggest that the corks and labels could be décor Rudy’s new house! The defense attorney chose to leave pictures from the arrest on the court monitors for quite a while–far too long, imho, searing these images from what was just called a wine factory into the memories of the jury.
One funny moment was when the defense attorney presented Wynn with a magnum signed by various collectors and asked him to read the names. After reciting a few, he quizzically said, “Big boy? I don’t know who that is.” (That was the nom de vin of collector Rob Rosania.)
Perhaps the defense has some stellar witnesses or undisclosed evidence lined up–innocent until proven guilty and all that. But from what I saw at 500 Pearl Street, courtroom 12-D today, things were looking pretty bleak for the defendant who faces up to 20 years in prison, if convicted. Proceedings will continue tomorrow morning with the prosecution bringing from French wine makers such as Laurent Ponsot to the witness stand.
The hottest wine book of 2013 might take you by surprise: it’s a scratch and sniff wine guide that’s printed on the stiff pages of a board book. The book has caught fire and reached #13 overall in book sales on Amazon and #10 in the “Advice, How-To, and Miscellaneous” portion of the NYT bestseller list. As you would expect, it is both skimmable and sniffable but it is also brilliant in its own small way; kudos to author Richard Betts for writing what might well be the shortest wine book in history.
To find out more about how “The Essential Scratch & Sniff Guide to Becoming a Wine Expert” came about and the vertiginous rise on the sales charts, I caught up with Betts by phone as he was driving in the Northern Rhone.
The story has its roots in Aspen. Betts was the wine director at The Little Nell there from 2000-2008 during which time he says it was “the best wine job on the planet.” Why? First, it was seasonal with basically six months on and six months, well, at a slower pace. During the off-months, Betts set about studying wine including passing the Master Sommelier exam as well as making his own wines from places as far afield as the Rhone and the Barossa Valley. Second, Aspen offers a steady stream of well-heeled and connected visitors who were all taking a break from their regular lives and thus “predisposed to smiling,” as Betts put it.
Betts was off skiing in Northern Canada a couple of years ago with his friend Chris Sacca. Sacca, who has been described by the WSJ as “possibly the most influential businessman in America,” is an angel investor who holds stakes in Twitter, Instagram, Kickstarter and Uber. (He also is an investor in Next Wine, LLC, which owns myessentialwine.com.) Betts says that they were up late after drinking “a lot of good wine” when Sacca urged him to consider how to bring his wine knowledge to a broader audience. Betts said that there world has so many good wine books from reference books to atlases and guides that it was hard to know how he contribute something new and different. Half in jest, Sacca suggested a scratch ‘n sniff wine book. That idea resonated with Betts whose mantra is that “wine is a grocery, not a luxury.” He enlisted Crystal English Sacca, a designer who has developed campaigns for Intel and Napster, among others, and happens to be married to Chris Sacca. Betts says he wrote the text but that Crystal “lays it out and makes it make sense” in her role as art director. She also brought on the accomplished Wendy McNaughton as illustrator.
Then Betts needed to find an agent. He said the dilemma is that “you need to have sold a book to get an agent but you need an agent to sell a book.” He asked three people–Kate Krader of Food & Wine magazine, Daniel Humm of Eleven Madison Park, and Tyler Hamilton, former professional cyclist–who would make a good agent. They all replied with the same name: David Black. He was able to get Black to represent him; they successfully sold the manuscript to Houghton Mifflin where the acquiring editor is also Jacques Pepin’s editor.
As the publication date approached in October, the book was climbing — it cracked the top 100 books sold on Amazon, topping at #17 before even hitting the shelves. It helped that Amazon cut the price on the book in half (it carries a list price of $19.99) making it a no-brainer stocking stuffer. But it also helped that the creative trio behind the book have friends active on social media and tech. “It’s a matter of having your friends talking about it,” Betts said. “Our friends don’t take to anything other than the airwaves [e.g. Twitter]…It had such a big impact–Twitter actually sells.” He added that he doesn’t find Facebook as important.
Chris Sacca also took to Twitter, posting a direct link to the book’s Amazon page for his 1.4 million followers. (As of today, that tweet appeared at the top of his feed as a “promoted tweet.”) Favorable media coverage also followed.
The book has been such a print success, in part because there’s no e-version–kind of hard to scratch ye olde iPad for scents. Betts has other scratch ‘n sniff books, though he couldn’t comment on the specifics.
More than the medium, Betts feels that the laid-back, inclusive message resonates broadly, saying, “I’m not into the tuxedos and scaring people away from wine. I’m into twist it off and knock it back.”
The post How Scratch and Sniff wine soared to the NYT bestseller list appeared first on Dr Vino's wine blog.
It’s not every day you hear urging Americans to drink wine. But that’s what John Kerry did today during a brief stopover in Moldova.
The Secretary of State wasn’t modeling his actions on Thomas Jefferson. Instead, by visiting a winery and raising a glass of Moldovan red, he was trying to help the agrarian economy of the Europe’s poorest country, one glass at a time.
Wine plays a central part in foreign trade for the landlocked country sandwiched between Ukraine and Romania where the GDP per capita of just over $2,000. But the lion’s share of those exports have gone to Russia, which has blacklisted Moldovan wine in a trade dispute. So Kerry’s trying to create a new market for Moldovan wine and announced a trade mission that will bring Moldovan wine makers to the US to learn about the American wine market. Look out for a merry band of Moldovans at your local wine shop–it may be as riotous as the Borat wine tasting.