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de Villaine: ‘It’s hard to believe Acker didn’t have doubts’

Aubert de Villaine, co-director of Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, has spoken out about auction house Acker Merrall & Condit’s role in the Rudy Kurniawan scandal.

Co-owner and co-director of Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, Aubert de Villaine

Speaking exclusively to the drinks business during the 2011 trade tasting of Domaine de la Romanée-Conti at Corney & Barrow last Friday, de Villaine said: “I don’t know their guilt but it’s hard to believe that they didn’t have doubts.

“Acker put on two sales of Kurniawan’s wines in 2006, which made US$35m – I think they were only thinking about money. The people who sold Kurniawan’s wines so easily and without any doubts are also guilty.”

In April 2008, 97 bottles of Domaine Ponsot belonging to Kurniawan were withdrawn at the last minute by John Kapon, head of Acker Merrall & Condit, from an Acker auction at Cru in New York at the request of the Burgundy estate’s owner, Laurent Ponsot.

John Kapon, head of Acker Merrall & Condit. Credit: Times of Malta

Among the lots was a bottle of 1929 Ponsot Clos de la Roche, a grand cru the domaine didn’t produce under its own label until 1934, and 38 bottles of Ponsot Clos Saint-Denis dating back to 1945, despite the estate not making the wine until 1982.

de Villaine described the experience of testifying in the recent New York trial of Indonesian-born wine collector Rudy Kurniawan as like “being in on a film set”.

“They put me a box in a small room where I had to wait until I was called. When I was swearing on the Bible I saw Rudy in the courtroom with his hands and feet handcuffed,” de Villaine told db.

“I had to talk a lot about the different climats in Burgundy and the jury, who didn’t look like typical Burgundy drinkers, were asking a lot of questions – it felt more like teaching than testifying,” he added.

de Villaine believes Kurniawan’s guilty verdict is “very important” for the wine industry and hopes it will deter others from doing something similar.

A court drawing from the recent Rudy Kurniawan trial. Credit: Jane Rosenberg/New York Daily News

“He deserved what he got as he really fooled a lot of people and his actions were inexcusable. There’s talk of him getting 30 years in prison, which I think is a bit harsh – I think 10 years would be more fair,” he said.

On the subject of fakes, de Villaine described the trend as a “terrible problem”.

“I’ve been forced to make my wines more traceable but I don’t want to end up creating wines full of gadgets.

“I’ve found increasingly more cases of DRC collectors seeking authentication of their wines but it’s a hard thing to do definitively as some vintages had several different labels printed.

“We’re working on tightening our distribution and people who buy DRC outside of our direct channels buy it at their own risk,” he added.

de Villaine believes the verdict of the Kurniawan trial means auction houses are going to have to be more transparent about who and where they get their wines from.

“It’s true that a lot of sellers don’t want to be publically named, but auction houses are giving too much benefit of the doubt at the moment,” he said.

He also spoke of the problem of fake DRC closer to home in Europe, referring to the recent case of an Italian father and son who were arrested in October after being found to have counterfeited €2 million worth of DRC.

“The bottles were being peddled around Europe by Russians,” he said, adding, “All this fakery takes away from the pleasure of winemaking for me – it turns it into a dirty business.”

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