NEW YORK — When you’re worth just shy of $4 billion or so, being cheated out of a couple of million dollars in a wine fraud might seem inconsequential.
But not to William Koch.
Koch, the industrialist whose achievements include winning the America’s Cup yacht race in 1992, has undertaken a self-described crusade to “shine a bright light on this fake-wine business.” He has filed lawsuits around the country against accused counterfeiters and said he has spent $25 million investigating fraudulent wine.
He has hired glass experts, label experts, glue experts and cork experts to examine the wines in his own cellar.
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Koch’s crusade took him Friday to U.S. District Court in Manhattan, where he took the witness stand against Rudy Kurniawan, the renowned rare-wine dealer whose charm and expertise, prosecutors say, helped mask the fraudulent sale of counterfeit wine for millions of dollars. Kurniawan was arrested and charged in 2012 with mail and wire fraud and faces up to 20 years in prison.
Among those said to be victimized was Koch.
“I got conned, got cheated,” Koch said. “No one likes to be conned or cheated.”
Kurniawan was one of the country’s most prominent oenophiles, spending more than a million dollars a month on wine while also selling tens of millions dollars’ worth of wine that he claimed was from his own collection.
Prosecutors now say Kurniawan blended most of the wine himself, using his exquisite palate to mix old, cheap French wines with more recent California wines and then covering the bottles with labels that he made with his laser printer.
Koch said he bought several bottles from a January 2006 auction of Kurniawan’s wine. The sale, run by New York wine-auction house Acker Merrall & Condit, drew attention among wine lovers worldwide for its offerings of vintages thought to have been long out of existence.
Koch paid $9,000 at auction for a 1949 Chateau Lafleur, $30,000 for a 1947 Chateau Petrus, and tens of thousands of dollars more for other bottles. With the help of the experts he hired, he discovered they were fakes and traced them to Kurniawan.
A prosecutor, Jason Hernandez, asked Koch if the authenticity of the labels and corks, which Kurniawan is accused of altering, mattered to him.
He answered: “If it walks like a duck, squawks like a duck, has feathers like a duck, it’s a duck. So if the label is fake, the cork is fake, the capsule is fake, the bottle is fake, what do you think is in the bottle? There’s a 99.99 percent probability the wine is fake as well.”
In 2009, Koch, whose better-known brothers underwrite conservative political causes, filed a lawsuit against Kurniawan in Los Angeles Superior Court claiming the bottles he bought were fakes.
He now says that he has identified more than 219 bottles of wine that were consigned by Kurniawan, for which he paid $2.1 million, that he believes to be fake. And he estimates he owns an additional 50 to 100 counterfeit bottles from Kurniawan for which he paid as much as a million dollars.
A lawyer for Kurniawan, Jerome Mooney, has argued that the market for rare wines is flooded with counterfeits and that his client was a victim, too.
Koch carried a file folder with spreadsheets containing data on the counterfeits that he said he had bought over the years.
In an interview outside of the courtroom, Koch described Kurniawan as one of the most prolific wine counterfeiters, a “clever con artist, but he’s also stupid.”
He said Kurniawan’s inability to manage his finances led to his downfall.
Asked if he had ever met Kurniawan, Koch said: “Never met him. Never want to meet him.”