NEW YORK — A federal prosecutor told a jury Tuesday that a California wine collector put on a “magic show” to fool aficionados into thinking he was selling the world’s rarest bottles, but his defense lawyer insisted he never intended to defraud anyone even if he re-corked some bottles or reconditioned them in other ways for sale.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Joseph Facciponti said in his closing argument at the criminal trial of Rudy Kurniawan that the defendant sold so many bottles of wine that were supposedly rare between 2004 and 2012 that the sales in New York and elsewhere “were the stuff of legends.”
“For a while, his magic show worked,” Facciponti told the jury in U.S. District Court in Manhattan.
But he said sellers eventually discovered that “the magic seller wasn’t magic at all, but just a bunch of smoke and mirrors.”
The prosecutor said Kurniawan made millions of dollars manufacturing fake vintage wine in his Arcadia, Calif., kitchen before the Indonesian-born defendant was arrested last year. The government accused him of selling more than $1.3 million worth of counterfeit bottles to other wealthy collectors.
Defense attorney Jerome Mooney countered that his client’s insecurities made him a target in the exclusive circles in which he found himself after he developed an expertise about vintage wines.
“He was just showing off. He wanted to be part of the club,” Mooney said, describing how Kurniawan treated wealthy clients with dinners and tens of thousands of dollars of free wine prior to auctions where he would sell thousands of bottles of wine.
Mooney did not reject the prosecution’s claims that Kurniawan tampered with bottles, replacing labels and corks and sometimes adding wine to bottles that were not as full as they should be.
“Did he do something he should not have done? Probably,” Mooney said. “He re-corked. He reconditioned wines. But he didn’t set out to defraud anyone.”
Kurniawan, 37, has remained imprisoned on charges of mail and wire fraud. Prosecutors say he spent money from the fraud, living a lavish lifestyle in suburban Los Angeles that included luxury cars, designer clothing and fine food and drinks even though he had been ordered to leave the country in 2003.
Among witnesses who testified against Kurniawan during the 10-day trial was billionaire yachtsman, entrepreneur and wine investor William Koch.
In a rebuttal argument, Assistant U.S. Attorney Jason Hernandez told jurors the evidence was overwhelming and they should convict Kurniawan for “tricking people into thinking he found magic sources of wine.”