King of Wine Fraud Facing Freedom

Inmates at Reeves celebrate Rudy's release in the traditional prison manner.
© Mother Jones | Inmates at Reeves celebrate Rudy's release in the traditional prison manner.
He's back! Rudy Kurniawan gets out of prison this week, so lock up your wine cellars.
By W. Blake Gray | Posted Wednesday, 04-Nov-2020

Wine counterfeiter Rudy Kurniawan has spent most of the last seven years in one of the 10 worst prisons in America, dealing with bad food, no medical care, and an inmate population reportedly run by hardened criminals from Mexico.

But he will be a free man next week. Kurniawan, still just 44 years old, is scheduled to be released from prison Saturday and deported from the United States.

Related stories:
Inside the Weird World of Rudy Kurniawan
Wine Fraudster's Appeal Falls Flat
True or False – Rudy's Wines for Sale

Once he gets home, he can probably return to the family business: fraud. His uncles in Indonesia embezzled more than $800 million from banks and were never caught, according to the film "Sour Grapes". This should give him the capital to start making counterfeit wine again.

"When he had to write a letter to the judge before his sentencing, there was no apology," wine counterfeit expert Maureen Downey told Wine-Searcher. "The only thing he said was, this was the only thing he was ever good at. He had a sense of pride in how good he was at it."

To be fair, Kurniawan was also good at the Mafia code of omertà. He never named any co-conspirators, not even on phone conversations with his mother that the FBI listened in on, according to Downey. Thus he got a longer sentence – 10 years – than expected.

"I very strongly believe that he's got hush money waiting for him," Downey said. "He's already got a network. And he's got funding."

Where Rudy has been

If he picked up a little Spanish, Kurniawan should also have expanded his network of friends beyond the type-A blowhards depicted in "Sour Grapes" and the unindicted merchants who happily sold his fake wines. His time in Correctional Institution Reeves just southwest of Pecos, Texas, offered many opportunities to kvetch.

CI Reeves is a privately run prison with a capacity of 3763; it has been called the largest private prison in the world. In 2013, the same year Kurniawan was convicted, Mother Jones called it one of the 10 worst prisons in America. A federal audit in 2015 said the prison is severely understaffed, has minimal oversight, arbitrarily punishes protesting inmates and overcharged the US government by $2.1 million.

The federal Bureau of Prisons canceled CI Reeves' contract in 2016. The Obama Administration announced plans for the federal government to move away from privately run prisons, which are notoriously bad because they have a profit incentive to spend less money on prisoners. But, in February 2017, the Trump Administration changed course and, in 2019, Reeves County signed a new 10-year contract with BOP to house non-US citizen criminals like Kurniawan.

CI Reeves attracted national attention in 2008 after a riot caused when a Mexican prisoner who was epileptic died of a seizure because he was not given medication. Another riot a few months later over the lack of medical care lasted for five days and led to a building being destroyed.

The Texas Observer wrote an article about the prison in 2009, including this bit about its culture: "A prisoner we'll call Juan, who asked that his real name not be used for fear of retribution, describes an environment of fear where hardened criminals serving long sentences live side by side with men who are there solely for crossing the border illegally. Juan says that prisoners in the jail are divided into groups based on their home state in Mexico with the tacit approval of the guards and the warden. Prisoners who have money and can buy influence and authority run these groups. These bosses dole out punishments and determine with the guards who gets sent to the punishment cell. Juan says: 'We are threatened and beaten if we complain. While [the prison bosses] can have cell phones and other benefits that are forbidden'."

The man they used to call Doctor Conti will likely get a hero's welcome in China.
© AP | The man they used to call Doctor Conti will likely get a hero's welcome in China.

In case you're wondering if conditions had improved by the time Kurniawan got there – they had not. As recently as August 2020, an inmate called a local TV station to complain about the lack of medical care. And in February of 2020 ... well, you know what, you're going to need a happy ending after this next part, so let's save it for the finale.

Where Rudy will go now

Kurniawan being deported should not be an obstacle to his return to the wine counterfeiting business. It's not like it worked before; in 2003 he was ordered to voluntarily deport from the US, but he didn't leave, instead spending his time drinking expensive wines, some of them real, with rich people.

But the wine counterfeiting business has changed while Kurniawan was in prison, Downey said. He was a specialist in older rare wines. Nowadays, counterfeiters make current release wine, which is a lot easier to do. Just last month, Italian police busted a counterfeit ring near Milan that had been about to sell 1100 six-bottle cases of fake Sassicaia 2015.

"It'll be a lot easier for [Kurniawan] because he's going to do current-release stuff and modern bottles," Downey said. "He used to make old and rare wine. You have to get period glass, appropriate ink and all of these things. With the Sassicaia bust, they were able to contact glass producers, send them a bottle and say, we want 20,000 of this bottle. The [glass] suppliers aren't beholden to the [wineries]. If you have $10,000 and an empty bottle, you can get somebody in China to make you 20,000 bottles."

Downey said she expects that China is where Kurniawan could set up shop. China is where Kurniawan's uncle Eddy Tansil went after bribing his way out of an Indonesian prison in 1996, just two years after he was given a 17-year sentence for embezzling $420 million from Bank Pembangunan Indonesia, which went bankrupt. Two years after escaping, Tansil was found running a large beer brewery in Fujian. Indonesia requested his extradition in 2013, but he is believed to be living in Macau.

"I would imagine they'll have their production facility in mainland China," Downey said. "One of the big problems with busting these production facilities is the cops are paid off. There was a big warehouse where they made fake Lafite. There was a bust, but the local cops were paid off to warn them about it, and when they went in there the warehouse was empty."

Downey remains frustrated that the wine sellers who sold Kurniawan's wines were not charged, and could soon be selling his wines again.

"It's the same bad guys over and over again," Downey said. "When these guys do get caught, they don't get in any trouble. I don't really expect that the United States is going to make wine counterfeiting an important crime. These are wines that are not trading publicly. These are wines that, if they got rejected by an auction house, they would sell privately. Retailers, nobody's looking at them. They sell to their high-end clients by email. Consumers are screwed."

The schadenfreude finale

So that's the likely future for Kurniawan: banned from the US, perhaps, unless he acquires a fake passport, but living in China with plenty of money and the respect of his criminal family and friends.

There will probably be more than one banquet in his honor. And afterwards, even Chinese toilets will be a treat.

In February of this year, the local Fox TV news station in Odessa, Texas did a story after complaints from the sister of an inmate at CI Reeves, where Kurniawan has spent the past seven years. This is Fox TV in rural Texas, so not an obvious source of media concern about prisoner rights.

But the complaint was about conditions bad enough to disturb even Fox TV. She said the prison was without running water for two days, and the toilets had not been flushed and were full. Not with water.

From the outhouse to the penthouse: Rudy Kurniawan, the sequel.

To join the conversation, comment on our social media channels.

Recent Stories

View All
Never Miss Out
Stay tuned with our weekly newsletter

Recent Stories

Chile Seduces China and a Winemaker Romance

The Remarkable Rise of Chateau Valandraud

The World's Most Wanted Sauvignon Blancs

Old Friends Split over Napa Cab

Wine Country Fights Back in Weed Wars

The World's Most Wanted Italian Wines

Science Makes a Mockery of Tasting Notes

France Opens up to Foreign Grapes

Barolo Rolls Out an Uneven Vintage

Climate Change Prompts Vineyard Yield Rethink

The World's Most Wanted Rieslings

Who Really Buys Fine Wine?