SF Wine Blog

Exploring wine in and around San Francisco.

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Rudy Kurniawan Has a New Attorney

It has been widely reported that accused wine counterfeiter Rudy Kurniawan would be seeking new counsel to represent him in the criminal case brought by the U.S. Department of Justice.  It appears that Jerome Mooney of the Los Angeles law firm Weston, Garrou & Mooney will now be representing Mr. Kurniawan.

In a July 29, 2013 letter to U.S. District Judge Richard M. Berman, Mr. Mooney requested that he be allowed to appear telephonically on Mr. Kurniawan’s behalf at a hearing scheduled for July 31, 2013.  Judge Berman denied the request, stating, “Application respectfully denied.  (Enough is enough).”  You can view a copy of the letter and Judge Berman’s response through this link:  Letter from New Counsel for Kurniawan.

In other developments, federal prosecutors sent a letter to Judge Berman on July 22 arguing that the court should deny any request from Mr. Kurniawan for a continuance of the September 9, 2013 trial date.  In that letter, the government argued, “The Court should not adjourn the trial date because Kurniawan has failed to retain new counsel in a timely manner.”  The prosecutors also disclosed that during a July 18 conference, prospective substitute counsel for Kurniawan (including Mr. Mooney) “informed the Court that [they] will seek to substitute as counsel for Kurniawan, provided that Kurniawan’s family is able to fund his defense.”  That letter is available here:  Letter from AUSA to Judge Berman

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Kurniawan Prosecutors will not depose Ponsot, de Villaine, or Roumier

In May, prosecutors in the Rudy Kurniawan case submitted a letter to the court requesting the  opportunity to depose a star-studded lineup of witnesses from Burgundy’s top estates:  Laurent Ponsot (Domaine Ponsot), Aubert de Villaine (Domaine de la Romanée-Conti),  and Christophe Roumier (Domaine Georges Roumier).  The Government stated that these witnesses would not be available to testify at the trial (scheduled to begin September 9) because of harvest, and that they wished to depose them to preserve their testimony for trial.  According to the letter, “all three witnesses will present highly relevant and necessary testimony that no other witness can offer about allegedly counterfeit bottles of wine discussed in the Superseding Indictment.”  On May 6, the Court granted the Government’s request.

Apparently, the prosecutors changed their mind.  According to the case docket, a June 4 letter sent by prosecutors to the court stated that “the Government will not be deposing the French winemakers that the Court authorized the parties to depose.”  It’s unclear whether this means that the Government now expects these witnesses to be available to testify at trial, or whether they plan on presenting their case without these witnesses’ testimony.  A copy of the letter was not available on ECF at the time I wrote this post.

A status conference in the case is scheduled for next Monday, July 8.

A copy of the May letter is available here:  SDNY Letter re Kurniawan Wine Fraud

UPDATE: JULY 6, 2013

On WineBerserkers, Don Cornwell writes that its his understanding that the three winemakers will not be deposed, but instead will testify at the trial itself now that the Burgundy harvest is expected to be late this year.  (Can someone please organize a mini La Paulée in NYC this September?).   As some of you know, Don has a lot of cred on all things related to this case.  

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Plaintiffs Suing Charlie Trotter Amend Their Complaint Twice in 24 Hours.

The news of the lawsuit filed by New York based wine collectors against Charlie Trotter for the sale of an allegedly counterfeit magnum of 1945 Domaine de la Romanee-Conti flooded social media outlets on Friday.  Among the allegations in Plaintiffs initial complaint was a claim that none-other than DRC’s Aubert de Villain had “confirmed” that the bottle “was counterfeit because [DRC] only produced small yields in 1945 and as a result did not produce any large-format magnum-size bottles in that vintage.”  Original Complaint filed June 13, 2013 at Paragraph 16.

Yesterday, Plaintifs filed an amended complaint which made no mention of de Villain, and instead stated that DRC’s estate director Jean-Charles Cuvelier was “not able to categorically support or deny that [DRC] produced any large-format magnum-size bottles in that vintage, but that it is likely that none were produced.”

Then Plaintiffs filed a motion to strike that amended complaint claiming that they had filed the wrong version, and then proceeded to file a new version.  This latest complaint simply states that the information provided by Mr. Cuvelier to Plaintiff’s expert “confirmed the accuracy of [the expert’s] report.”

These amendments to the complaint do not necessarily detract from the potential strength of Plaintiffs case.  Plaintiffs have a report issued by noted expert Maureen Downey that allegedly supports their claim that the bottle is counterfeit.  But retracting factual allegations made in a court-filed complaint twice in twenty-four hours is not the way any litigant wants to kick-off a lawsuit.

Here’s a PDF highlighting the series of edits described above:  Comparison of Trotter Complaints

UPDATE 7/22/2013:  On Thursday, June 20, the District Court for the Northern District of Illinois granted plaintiff’s motion to strike.  The court also issued the following order, which requires the plaintiffs to file yet another amended complaint to correct an error made by plaintiffs’ counsel.  In their complaint, Plaintiffs claim that federal district court has jurisdiction over the matter based on diversity jurisdiction.  But instead of including allegations regarding the parties’ place of citizenship, the complaint only alleges where the parties reside.  Although the Court could have dismissed the complaint due to this error, the judge decided to give Plaintiffs’ counsel the opportunity to amend their complaint by July 8, 2013.  The Court  noted that  “no charge is to be made to Frrokajs [Plaintiffs] for the time and expense involved in correcting counsel’s errors. Frrokajs’ counsel are further directed to send a letter to their clients informing them to that effect, with a copy to be mailed to this Court’s chambers (purely for information, not for filing).”




Wanted: Vineyard Owners with a Sense of Daring

Here’s to the crazy ones.  The misfits, the rebels, the troublemakers…..

Last weekend, on a gorgeous and balmy Saturday afternoon, consumers packed Bergamot Alley in Healdsburg to drink Aglianico, Ribolla Gialla, Semillon, Trousseau Gris and Trousseau Noir from “a veritable Who’s Who list of many of the hottest small wineries in California” — Arnot-Roberts, Wind Gap, Ryme, Matthiasson, Massican, Broc Cellars, Scholium Project.  These may not be household names, but amongst the trade, these producers have a lot of pull and have garnered a fair amount of attention.  And deservedly so.  They are making exciting wines.

But in order for these producers to keep capturing our imagination, they need to secure the raw materials, the grapes, to keep producing these wines.  And as Jon Bonne pointed out in a post over a year ago, “the vast majority of California up-and-comers” don’t have the resources to own their own vineyards.  Instead, they’re buying fruit from growers.

These farmers and vineyard owners are the unsung heroes of the “new” California.  They may be growing unheralded grapes, planting vines in areas consumers are only starting to discover, or holding on to old vines that still manage to eek out enough grapes to make a barrel or two.  And at the same time, they are helping fuel a very exciting and dynamic part of the California wine industry.

Sadly, this wine world recently lost one of these daring vineyard owners:  George Vare.  George’s wine career included many blue-chip names:  Geyser Peak, Beringer Vineyards, Henry Wine Group.  But he also had a sense of adventure, founding Luna Vineyards and being the first to introduce Ribolla Gialla to California.  George planted about 2.5 acres in his own vineyard in Napa and shared the grapes and his knowledge of Ribolla from various trips to Italy and Slovenia with a talented group of winemakers.  I never met George, but I admired what he did, and have talked to many who directly benefitted from his vision, his moxie, and his friendship.  Here’s what the Napa Valley Register had to say about George and his Ribolla upon his passing:

His last great project arose as a result of his work at Luna and the many friendships and visits he made to vintners in the Collio region of Friuli, Italy, and Slovenia. George loved small family winemakers, and became interested in the ancient Friulian grape variety Ribolla Gialla. An idiosyncratic grape, tough to grow, different to make wine from, and hard to pronounce, it is also fascinating to taste, great with food, and represents a long tradition in Italy of toiling out of love, rather than following the latest trend. George loved this about the variety, and decided that it would be his retirement project.

As much as George loved Ribolla Gialla, he was equally passionate about the help he could give to young winemakers with a vision, whether his help was advice, encouragement, or access to his precious Ribolla Gialla grapes, which he shared with a group of young iconoclastic winemakers.

From his time at Luna, where he provided an incubator for young winemakers, to his Ribolla Gialla vineyard, George was a sort of godfather for the current “new wave” of California winemakers. Ribolla Gialla to him was more than just a grape variety … it represented everything impractical but meaningful about the wine business — the business he loved and help lead for 40 years.

At events like the 7% Solution, I find myself wondering if there are enough vineyard owners who have the vision and daring to follow in George’s footsteps.  People who are willing to take a gamble on unknown grape varieties even though they could get more dollar-per-acre or ton for Cab.  Farmers dedicated to making sure that California — a state with a very young winemaking history in the grand scheme of things — continues to figure out what-grows-best-where.

I worry that with all the talk of a California grape shortage, vineyard owners (large and small) will try to play it safe and focus on brand name grapes and AVAs and try to maximize production at the expense of quality.  I worry that they may rip out old vines or be tempted to sell solely to large, mass-produced brands that they know will be around 5 years from now, and  less willing to take a chance on a year-to-year contract with a young winemaker just starting out.

We can and should continue to celebrate the winemakers who are experimenting with lesser known grapes and sourcing from lesser known places.  But we also need to tip our hats to and encourage vineyard owners and farmers who are providing the very ground upon on which these winemakers stand.