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Expert to testify at New York wine-fraud trial

French wine maker Laurent Ponsot arrives at Federal Court to testify in the trial of wine dealer Rudy Kurniawan December 11, 2013 in New York
French wine maker Laurent Ponsot arrives at Federal Court to testify in the trial of wine dealer Rudy Kurniawan December 11, 2013 in New York

A French expert was set to be the star witness Wednesday against one of the world's top wine collectors on trial for fraud in New York and facing up to 40 years in prison.

"It risks taking a long time," Laurent Ponsot told AFP, saying he would be as exact as possible in explaining precisely what's at stake to the 12 jurors at the Manhattan federal court.

Indonesian-born Rudy Kurniawan, who has lived illegally in the United States since his asylum bid was rejected in 2003, was once considered one of the top five wine collectors in the world.

The court has already heard how he had an exceptional palate, capable of identifying and memorising the world's finest wines.

But prosecutors say his lavish millionaire-style life was built on a lie and a pile of debt.

They say he sold at auction and direct to collectors, ordinary wine that he blended in his kitchen "laboratory" and re-bottled to masquerade as vintage wines worth thousands of dollars.

On Wednesday, the third day of the trial, prosecutor Jason Hernandez showed further evidence allegedly collected during an FBI raid on his home in the suburbs of Los Angeles in March 2012.

Hundreds of bottle labels, fake and real, invoices for sealing wax and a notebook of formulae were among those shown.

There was an email purportedly sent by Kurniawan to a new York restaurant on October 23, 2006 asking them to send empty bottles of the fine wine he drank.

"Don't wash them, as they need them to look original for a photo shoot," he allegedly wrote. There was a follow-up email in which he complained that "all but two" were broken.

There were also run of the mill bottles on which he allegedly wrote in silver "40-50 DRC," understood as short hand for vintage Romanee Conti from the 1940s and 50s.

Kurniawan, wearing an impeccable grey suit, sat expressionless in court. He has lost weight during his 19 months in custody and his boyish face was hidden behind large black-framed spectacles.

Ponsot, of the acclaimed Domaine Ponsot winery in France, has said he first came across Kurniawan in 2008 when the defendant offered to auction in New York 97 bottles of Domaine Ponsot wine.

The sale was set for April 25, 2008 and the catalog distributed to potential buyers offering 22 lots of Domaine Ponsot for an estimated total value of $440,500 to $602,000.

It included a bottle of Clos de la Roche dated 1929 and valued at $14,000 to $18,000. Tipped off by someone with doubts, Ponsot travelled to New York to withdraw his wines from the sale.

Investigators would go onto establish that most of the bottles were fake, including the purported 1929. The first Clos de la Roche was produced in 1934.

When Ponsot asked Kurniawan where he got his wines from, it allegedly took him two months to supply a name, "Pak Hendra" and two telephone numbers in Indonesia.

Investigators quickly established there was no such person and the numbers were unresponsive.

Kurniawan stopped responding to Ponsot's emails but in the small world of collectors of supremely expensive fine wines, the case sealed his downfall.

After allegedly trying to sell more dubious wine at auction in London via an intermediary in 2012, Kurniawan was arrested on March 8, 2012 at his Californian home in Arcadia.

The defense has portrayed a young man who desperately wanted to fit into the richer, older world of rare wine collectors.

Kurniawan is accused of postal fraud by selling fake vintage wines and of wire fraud by fraudulently obtaining the loan.

His trial is expected to last about two weeks.

Although Kurniawan is alone in the dock, the question of whether he had accomplices is likely to loom large over the case with the defense painting a picture of a man being made a scapegoat.

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