For whatever reason I’ve spent most of my life thinking of the true crime genre as play-by-play retellings of gruesome murders and unsolved disappearances, and have only dipped into that section when in the mood for something really spooky. Recently however an account of the Isabella Gardner Museum heist came across my desk, and now to my great delight I have a backlog of thirty-something books on great art and jewel heists, solved and unsolved, ancient and modern. Likely for the same reason Robin Hood movies keep getting made, there’s just something addictive about stories of fabulous thefts, especially ones where the wealthy get a comeuppance (and nobody is really hurt once the insurance companies pay out anyway) that captivates the imagination…if told with that sense of adventure in mind. In Vino Duplicitas, a summation of the greatest wine fraud event in this century, doesn’t disappoint when it comes to a criminally twisted tale or imaginative telling.
As a wine journalist and appreciator himself, author Peter Hellman’s talent in explaining a fairly blue-blooded hobby to the everyday reader is evident from page one. He doesn’t just toss names and dates around and expect the reader to understand his context like elite wine collectors: Hellman leverages his experience describing wines and what makes them special to draw the reader in from the preface, before even diving into the story of infamous wine forger Rudy Kurniawan. An immigrant to the United States with an expired student visa and alleged access to a family fortune abroad, Kurniawan began infiltrating the world of wine in the early 2000’s. Armed with easy charm, a naturally talented palate, and enough real rare wines to generously uncork for his friends at every opportunity, he was accepted as a comrade and expert by elite names in predominately older, wealthy, white circles. They saw the passionate young man with a formidable collection of his own who hosted large parties at expensive restaurants (with a notable habit of always having the empty bottles and corks shipped back to his home as “mementos”) as a breath of fresh air, and once accepted by the wine connoisseur boy’s club, Kurniawan exploited their trust in his taste to mix counterfeit rare wines and unload them at auctions in the U.S. and internationally for untold millions of dollars.
Had his reach of his scheme not exceeded its grasp, he might have gone on counterfeiting wines for years longer than he successfully did: his marks found it unthinkable that another hobbyist would be so blasphemous as to violate the integrity of the hobby they loved, but after a point it was also unthinkable that so many bottles of wines thought lost or extinct could suddenly be procured by one person. Once the proprietors of the French wineries Kurniawan specialized in replicating started talking to each other and investigating the source of the “Frankenstein wines,” Kurniawan’s days were numbered and the FBI agents who had been dogging his tracks closed in. The book then recounts how the situation devolved into several millionaire wine collectors suing each other alongside Kurniawan in a legal flurry of betrayal and wounded pride, desperate to make an example out of anyone they could. Even a member of the politically recognizable Koch family was swindled by Kurniawan.
Despite his admissions of the lasting damage Kurniawan dealt the rare wine world and many testimonies from angry hobbyists, Hellman even still seems to hold a note of respect for something about him – perhaps his undeniable palate, perhaps the sheer amount of chaos he sowed, or perhaps like many of us who will read this book, the understanding that sometimes it’s fun to see the underdog triumph over the decadently wealthy, even if that underdog is just a shady little criminal. As the author himself supposes, “…do these folks not bear some responsibility for not doing their due diligence before throwing silly quantities of money at Kurniawan wine? Absent the guile of a consummate con man, they would have held tight to their money and their common sense.” Hellman, who includes his own conversations with Kurniawan during the time he was active among the scores of referenced others who once counted him as friend and confidante, clearly researched his book extensively as a labor of love for years during and after the fallout from Rudy Kurniawan. Using his professional profile as a wine writer the way Kurniawan used his gifted palate, Hellman was able to conduct incredibly candid interviews with almost everyone touched by Kurniawan’s schemes, from legacy winemakers to federal agents to lifelong connoisseurs, everyone who contributed to the book seemingly eager to spill the beans on the fraud that had walked among them.
In Vino Duplicitas is juicy enough as a crime story to stand on its own, but what really made the ride enjoyable for me was Hellman’s passion for the art of wine, a subject I’m generally ignorant of as a fancy hobby for the rich with little impact on me, personally. But Hellman takes us on a leisurely tour through his narrative, pausing at useful intervals to explain the story behind the 1945 Chateau Mouton Rothschild, harvested just after the Germans were driven from France and its label emblazoned with a “V” for “victory”, and to recount the raptures of one of Kurniawan’s mentors after the con man shared with him a 140-year-old Volnay Santenots the man described as, among other things, a “mythical creature”. If a wine is rare or special, Hellman will describe for you in lush detail exactly what it is that makes that wine unforgettable. Hellman takes the reader by the hand and invites them to the lavish dinners at which Kurniawan wooed his marks, gatherings of supposed friends dining in the kind of decadence most of us can only dream of, and as a wine journalist given a glimpse of this world as an outsider himself (a working professional, not there for pleasure), Hellman seems to relate to the reader in that regard. He certainly taught me several things about wine over the course of the story I would otherwise never have picked up. Other writers without a personal interest in the world Hellman crafts for us could not have told the story of Rudy Kurniawan with half as much charm or intrigue.
I would heartily recommend In Vino Duplicitas to any fans of crime or heist television such as Catch Me If You Can or Leverage; to anyone who enjoys the schadenfreude of witnessing extremely bamboozled billionaires; and to anyone who’s always wanted to know more about the exclusive art of wine, perhaps from a helpful friend willing to share with us just what makes wine special enough for some to risk everything for.
– Review by Sarah, Middletown