DRESSED IN scruffy jeans, a tight, gray T-shirt and cowboy boots, Rudy Kurniawan slid into a front-row seat at a Christie's Beverly Hills auction room. He didn't blend with the cashmere and Cole Haan crowd hoping to pick up a few bottles of rare and old wine. And it wasn't just his wardrobe.
In a few short hours that Saturday afternoon, the then-29-year-old Indonesian-born Kurniawan spent an estimated $500,000. For one case of 24 half-bottles of 1947 Chateau Cheval Blanc, the famed St. Emilion premier cru, he dropped $75,000. Then he bought a second case of the same wine for nearly as much.
A week later, he went on another spending spree at a Zachys auction at the Peninsula Hotel in Beverly Hills. Then came buying binges in New York at Sotheby's and at an Acker Merrall & Condit auction. During the last several years, Kurniawan has spent an estimated $1 million a month bidding at nearly every auction of old and rare wine in the country.
He spoke heavily accented English when he came to Los Angeles to attend Cal State Northridge 11 years ago, had his first taste of fine wine only six years ago, and makes his home in Arcadia. But Kurniawan has enough family money to have amassed one of the world's premier wine collections, estimated at its peak to be more than 50,000 bottles of the most celebrated Bordeaux and Burgundy wines of the last century.
And he's still buying. Though he's culled his old wine collection, selling off duplicates in two recent Acker Merrall sales that grossed $35.4 million, he continues to buy entire cellars directly from other collectors as well as at auction, and he's investing heavily in young wine as it is released from Europe's top producers.
Simple passion is his explanation. "I'm not a collector. I'm a drinker," Kurniawan says, his eyes smiling behind black-framed glasses sporting the silver dagger insignia of rocker-chic jeweler Chrome Hearts. Now 30, he gels his straight black hair off his soft-featured face. "People who know me and come to see my cellar know that they can drink whatever they want. Wine is something you open and you share."
A slight man whose unconscious self-confidence is the only tip-off that he's old enough to drink, Kurniawan would rather the world didn't know much about him. He won't disclose the identify of his family or the source of their fortune. His father, he says, gave him an Indonesian surname that is different from the family's Chinese name to allow him to maintain his autonomy.
Kurniawan's outsize taste for old wine, however, has changed the market, say auction house insiders. Since he started buying, prices for rare wine have skyrocketed. As he stepped up his acquisitions in 2004, a dozen other ultra-rich buyers emerged to compete with him for the best bottles. And the market for old wine exploded.
The average price of a bottle of wine sold at auction has increased 62% from the first quarter of 2001 through the end of the third quarter of 2006, according to Wine Market Journal, an online service that tracks wine auctions around the world. Last year, the dollar value of the old wine market rose 31%, with a total of $166 million spent at auction worldwide.
The rise has been much steeper for the rare wines Kurniawan favors. One example: At the start of 2001, bottles of Bordeaux's famed 1945 Mouton Rothschild, on average, sold for $3,759. At a recent auction, a bottle sold for $10,337, according to Wine Market Journal.
"The market has changed radically," says Allen Meadows, editor of Burghound, a leading international publication tracking Burgundy wine, who believes that Kurniawan's heavy buying has been a significant factor. "I used to go out and buy old Burgundy whenever I wanted to. It was cheaper than the new stuff. Now, older wines are selling for 20 times what I used to pay only a couple of years ago."
CHINESE by heritage but born in Jakarta, Indonesia, Kurniawan is the youngest son of a family that, he says, owns businesses in China and Indonesia. His father died six years ago, and his oldest brother is now in charge of the family's affairs, he says. "My family is very private," he notes.
The family also is close-knit. Kurniawan settled in Arcadia because his mother, a frequent houseguest, felt at home in the Chinese-language community. "I'm Chinese," Kurniawan says. "If my family comes over -- they don't speak English -- it's easier for them there. My family is very traditional, strict. I'm the rebel of the family, doing my own thing."