Hot Docs 2016: Sour Grapes
The world of vintage wine collecting is a highly lucrative business. Every year millions of dollars are spent by the richest connoisseurs to fill their own personal cellars. Like any hobby dealing in antiquities, the thrill is in the hunt to own the rarest of items. When a young man named Rudy Kurniawan showed up on the scene and started making a name for himself as a big-time player in the auction world, a ripple began spreading through the old boys’ club. Kurniawan started selling bottles from his collection and soon the biggest con ever to hit the vintage wine world was uncovered. Thousands of bottles of counterfeit wine flooded into the marketplace. Directors Jerry Rothwell and Reuben Atlas have chronicled the high-stakes story in their film Sour Grapes, an engaging look at the rise and fall of a man trying to outsmart the greatest experts in the world.
Earning the reputation as being a wine savant, Rudy Kurniawan landed on the vintage wine auction market in a big way. He used his charming personality to work his way into the inner circles and was at the same time being extremely calculated about not revealing any information about where he or his money came from. After several years of collecting, Kurniawan announced that he would be selling large portions of the bottles in his cellar. He hired an auction house and millions of dollars were spent. Shortly after, suspicion began to rise as Bill Koch, one of the biggest collectors in the country, discovered a bottle that was not what it appeared to be. Other experts started digging and they found bottles that had the wrong type of glass, pristine-looking labels, cork not aged properly, incorrect bottle weights, and incorrect years. Master winemaker Laurent Ponsot, whose family owns the Ponsot winery in Burgundy, France, spotted fake bottles in an auction catalogue and requested the bottles be withdrawn. Everyone’s investigations were all leading back to Rudy Kurniawan. The FBI became involved, which led to him being arrested and portions of his counterfeit operations being discovered.
It’s fascinating the lengths to which Kurniawan went to try and deceive the vintage wine world. What was really going on behind the person he presented himself as publicly? Friends were in disbelief that he would be capable of such an undertaking, with many believing that this enterprise ran much deeper and that he was just the man to take the fall. However, with the potential of millions of dollars being on the line, the temptation was just too strong. Kurniawan had become overconfident in his abilities and ended up getting sloppy, which accelerated his downfall. For someone billed as an expert in identifying bottles, years, and tastes, his mistakes seemed uncharacteristic of who he portrayed himself to be. He was no match for the experts around the world.
The film is an exciting recreation of the events, interviewing almost all of the key players that had either been swindled or were involved in uncovering the deception. Kurniawan, currently serving a 10-year sentence in a correctional institution in Taft, California, declined to be interviewed for the film. It’s a legal thriller set in an unlikely world with connections to several countries and it’s a captivating tale. The ramifications from this scandal will be felt through many antiquity markets and the wine collecting world especially for decades to come, as there are an estimated 40,000 bottles from Kurniawan’s sales still floating around in private collections. Fortunately, trained appraisers and auction houses are now savvy to the methods he used and can easily spot a bottle that is not real.
The film raises an interesting moral question. As we watch hundreds of these counterfeit bottles being seized and destroyed, how many people who were deceived and have these in their personal collections are too embarrassed or willing to admit they’ve been duped? When you pride yourself on being an expert, would you want to admit to falling for the scam? Or are you able to live in blissful ignorance and believe that you had found that rare item you longed for to make your collection complete?
Sour Grapes opens at the Bloor Hot Docs Cinema on Friday, May 27th. More information HERE.
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