Book Review: In Vino Duplicitas: The Rise and Fall of a Wine Forger Extraordinaire, by Peter Hellman

Posted by | Posted in Book Reviews | Posted on 08-14-2017

In Vino Duplicitas - Book CoverPeter Hellman’s In Vino Duplicitas is the best account to date of super-taster turned wine forger Rudy Kurniawan‘s elaborate con of the upper set. It’s also a delight to read.

Hellman, longtime contributor to Wine Spectator, has been on the journalistic front lines of the Rudy story since the beginning. He was there at the infamous Acker Merrall & Condit auction of April 25, 2008, when Burgundian winemaker Laurent Ponsot compelled the removal of several of his domaine’s wines from bidding. The consigner of the dubious Ponsots had of course been Rudy.

“Hey, Rudy, what happened with those Ponsot wines?” Hellman asked. “We try to do the right thing,” answered Rudy, “but it’s burgundy. Shit happens.”

That Hellman actually interacted with Rudy, and engaged with the story as it unfolded, adds a level of credibility to the book, and makes it all the more compelling. (Apart from the epilogue, that is, where compelling turns to creepy as Hellman talks about his visits to California’s Taft Correctional Institution and a failed attempt with a pair of binoculars to spot Rudy in the exercise yard.)

As is the privilege of text, In Vino Duplicitas is rich in detail, far more so than previous accounts of the Rudy story, most notably the 2016 documentary Sour Grapes (my review), which is still an excellent overview. Hellman’s book just goes deeper.

I was pleased to see in the book a more robust history of Rudy’s fakery, including some of his earliest cons. Between 2003 and 2005, Brian Devine, then CEO and chairman of Petco, was sold $5.3 million in wine, which later proved to be “amateurishly fabricated,” by an online seller named “Leny,” who was in fact Rudy. During this same period, a noted collector with a more trained palate discovered a “uniform oxidative quality” in the hundreds-of-thousands of dollars worth of wine he’d purchased from Rudy. But in that case a refund was given, so the forging scheme remained undetected.

Hellman’s book also includes selections from Rudy’s email correspondence, the tone of which vacillates between confidence and urgency, and affability and anger. Rudy’s trial, too, gets its own chapter. Noteworthy there is a look at the strategies of both defense and prosecution.

While In Vino Duplicitas is the most comprehensive account so far written, questions still remain. Like, where did Rudy’s money really come from? Did he have accomplices, either foreign or domestic? And how many Rudy bottles are still in circulation? Despite the millions spent by Bill Koch, a serial victim of wine forgery, to unearth the truth about Rudy, the story sits irritatingly incomplete.

My Recommendation
I can’t recommend In Vino Duplicitas enough! I read this book lying oceanside on my honeymoon in Belize, so maybe I’m biased, but it’s the most captivating thing I’ve read all year. Hellman has really done his research and written something that will appeal to any and all who appreciate wine and/or enjoy tales of true crime in high society.

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