Sour Grapes (2016)

Sour Grapes is a highly entertaining documentary by Reuben Atlas and Jerry Rothwell that turns the inside story of a US wine counterfeiting scam into a drily amusing, full-bodied thriller.

Red, Red Wine

by Alexa Dalby

Sour Grapes

CAUTION: Here be spoilers

The story of Rudy Kurniawan has been widely reported but the background to it is fascinating, as this entertaining and intelligent documentary reveals. Since 2014 he’s been in jail in the US, sentenced to ten years for, among other things, making and selling counterfeit fine wines.

An Indonesian student who, it transpires when things fall apart, had overstayed in the US, Rudy scammed ultra-wealthy oenophiles who thought they were amassing crates of the best vintages for their well-stocked wine cellars. Rudy was a con man who charmed them all with his genuine knowledge of wine into believing he was an independently rich collector like them, selling his wine at auction for millions of dollars. It was only when French wine producer Laurent Ponsot discovered that wines being offered for sale purporting to be from his family’s Domaine Ponsot were in fact labelled as being from vintages that didn’t exist that Rudy’s scam was uncovered. Ponsot, a media natural who speaks fluent English, travelled to the US to track down the source of the fraud that was besmirching the good name of Burgundy and though it took him several years, succeeded in doing so.

This amusing and gripping documentary unravels like the layers of a crime thriller how Rudy operated his scam, speculates on where his millions went and reveals that Rudy Kurniawan probably wasn’t even his real name. It introduces us to well-heeled and embarrassed wine snobs who still find it hard to believe that Rudy wasn’t genuine, characters such as billionaire collector Bill Koch who was scammed out of $4 million and set his own investigator Brad Goldstein on the case, wine writers Jay McInerney and Corie Brown, ex-FBI agent Jim Wynne and prosecutor Jason Hernandez. We see the importance of tradition in the daily life of a vigneron in Burgundy and joyous scenes of the vendange at Domaine Ponsot, of grapes being harvested and the celebrations that follow.

Sour Grapes is an absorbing documentary that feels like a drama as the story unravels. Ultimately, the value of fine wine is based on trust. Because the wines are so rare and few people get to taste them, no one really knows what they should taste like and so wine drinkers believe what they want to believe about their provenance. Rudy threatened that trust and Ponsot fought to preserve it and, it seems, has won. Vintage stuff.

Sour Grapes is released on 16 September 2016 in the UK.

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