Sour Grapes The Movie
There is a sub-culture of elite wine lovers who explore their passion on a level most of us can not imagine or ever hope to join. They are collectors of old and rare bottles purchased at auctions, turning a living thing into a commodity and granting it an untouchable price. "What these guys actually had is what Americans call fuck you money," wine fraud specialist and Chai Consulting founder Maureen Downey says in the new documentary Sour Grapes, which chronicles the rise and fall of fine wine charlatan Rudy Kurniawan.
In 2010, at the height of Kurniawan's prestige and just two years before his arrest by the FBI for fraudulent wine sales, the auction scene hit a record $408 million, according to Wine Spectator in December of that year. That number has since fallen to $346 million. It's not easy to generate empathy for those who lost money on such an obscene sale, but the story helps explain why even current release Burgundy has become unattainable for the laymen, often hitting the $300-$400 mark, and points to a larger sore on humanity. Money rules. Downey's comment points directly to the CEOs, Wall Street kings, movie producers, oil industry barons and the like who have so much wealth that laying down $20,000 on a single bottle of 1990 DRC is hardly a risk. They are the 1%.
To fake an old, rare bottle of Burgundy one must take numerous steps to convince the buyer. And these buyers aren't newcomers. Many of them have been drinking and stashing the great Burgundy crus for decades. These guys are experts in their own right. Rudy's task of blending and impersonating was nothing short of art. But, to quote a friend also enthusiastic about the film, "He fucked with the wrong guys."
First, winemaker Laurent Ponsot of the eminent Domaine Ponsot in Morey St. Denis, found an auction catalog listing an old bottling of a vineyard his family didn't make that year. "A fake bottle is dirt on the face of Burgundy," he says. And he set out to clean it. Second, billionaire Bill Koch - twin to David of the infamous Koch brothers, though not himself directly tied to conservative political group and lobbyist funding - discovered his fake bottles when he also discovered the four fakes supposedly to have come from Thomas Jefferson's cellar. He paid over $100,000 per bottle for those faux treasures - not from Rudy's cellar - and that story was the impetus for the book The Billionaire's Vinegar.
It's an expertly produced documentary that includes lengthy footage of Rudy pre-arrest, which I gather was part of a proposed food and wine television show that never came to be. What you get is a clear picture of how likable Rudy is and what a stand up guy he appeared to be. Some of his closest friends featured in the film seemed to hold to the belief that Rudy had done nothing wrong at all, even though he surely sold fake bottles to them as well, demonstrating what one investigator in the film called "the elegance of the hustle."
Rudy's statement to the judge, "Wine became my life and I lost myself in it" is as poetic as the fraudulent art form he perfected. Sour Grapes is a tale of mystery, deception, vinous passion and greed with a dynamic cast of characters (bank robbers too) that will entertain and lend insight into the illustrious auction world.
Now showing on Netflix.