EXCLUSIVE: Level One’s Bill Todman Jr and Edward Milstein have teamed to option A Vintage Crime, a Vanity Fair.com article by Michael Steinberger about Rudy Karniawan. A shadowy figure who zoomed to the center of the rare collectible wine game, he is suspected of perpetrating what might be the largest known wine fraud in history. They will look for a writer quickly.
The article focuses on the curious ascension of Karniawan, a 31-year old collector from Indonesia who, from his perch in Los Angeles, began buying and selling large quantities of rare Burgundy wines in 2003 and soon became the world’s most prodigious wine collector. Vague about his origins and armed with an impeccable knowledge of wine and a discerning palate, Karniawan helped drive up the prices of rare grape, and then sold $35 million worth of wines in two auctions. Many of them turned out to be counterfeits. Karniawan, who spent big bucks to build his credibility among wine aficionados, had an arrangement with with the restaurants that hosted his wine-tasting parties, one that should have set off alarm bells. He ordered them to return his empty bottles, which he would refill with old but inferior wines he bought in bulk. He’d blend his own mixture and auction them as rare valuable fakes. He was done in by winemaker Laurent Ponsot, who discovered Karniawan was selling bottles of his family’s wines dated in years that the family wasn’t bottling the product. The FBI got involved, and discovered Karniawan wasn’t the wealthy scion of an Indonesian family, but rather was in the country illegally. He was arrested for wire and mail fraud and the Feds uncovered an elaborate counterfeiting operation in his home. If left collectors whining they’d been had. Among them was Milstein, who’ll produce with Todman Jr.
“Eddie is a huge wine collector who knew Rudy, and likely bought a few bottles from him, and when we got a peek at this article, Eddie flipped for it and we bought it preemptively,” Todman told me. “It has that Catch Me If You Can thriller aspect, where you can’t believe this guy got away with this for so long, ingratiating himself into this billionaire’s club and living the high life, at least for awhile.”
This is the second rare wine caper to draw the attention of Hollywood, and it seems likely that someone will uncork a movie about bogus bottles. There were two projects set up about music manager-turned wine dealer Hardy Rodenstock, who claimed to have unearthed wine from a cache that belonged to Thomas Jefferson in France. They were found to be fakes. That hatched an HBO film based on the New Yorker article The Jefferson Bottles, and a feature film optioned by Sony for Escape Artists and Overbrook Entertainment, based on the book The Billionaire’s Vinegar. The latter project has a strong script by Michael Brandt and Derek Haas and is getting close to the start line. In both wine fraud cases, zillionaire Bill Koch bought bottles from Kurniawan and Rodenstock and his subsequent lawsuits helped to expose both frauds. ICM Partners made the preemptive deal.