The documentary film Sour Grapes decants one of the biggest and most outrageous fraud cases to ever rock the wine industry. In the early “2000’s” many of the worlds top wine collectors were duped in a scam, fronted by a mysterious young man named Rudy Kurniawan. Thousands of bogus bottles were sold – netting a haul in the tens of millions of dollars – and it was all executed on the watch of one of the top rare wine auction houses of the time. It’s unknown how many fakes still languish in cellars and remain available in the marketplace around the globe.
Kim Gertler met up with the two directors of the film, Jerry Rothwell and Reuben Atlas, at the worldwide premiere of Sour Grapes at Hot Docs and spoke with one of the film’s stars, wine sleuth Maureen Downey of winefraud.com from her office in San Francisco.
If you love wine – there are moments in this juicy documentary that will make you squirm, like when we ride along in the limo, with a couple of very thirsty, well-heeled, wine collectors:
“I drank a lot of that 1907 Madeira …it was coconut, it was nutmeg and espresso.”
After a big slurp of red wine, he addresses the camera:
“For anyone out there – buy ‘96 champagne all day, if you can’t afford that, buy ’02, if you can’t afford that, drink fucking beer.”
You get the feeling that these guys almost deserve to be fleeced. But there were other victims of this massive operation that festered, undetected by authorities, for more than a decade. Among those bilked? Billionaire Bill Koch. A portion of his cellar very recently (May 23rd) fetched a record $22 million US in sales at a Sotheby’s auction. “Sour Grapes” reveals how a billionaire’s bucks, a wily winemaker and a lady wine sleuth unraveled the complexities of the caper, long before the feds paid any attention.
Do people really care about the victims of wine fraud? After all, as Jerry Rothwell, puts it:
“If you tell people who are not involved in wine the story, they say – that’s brilliant, that’s great, you know, cause they have this idea about wine aficionados, that they’re kind of snobs and that, ultimately, this is a kind of house of cards that could come tumbling down and Rudy’s the guy who does this.”
The big squeeze went down at a time when wine auctions were perfectly-ripe for the picking: the years leading up to the crash of 2008, when wallets were fat, and fine wine collecting was a rarefied gentlemen’s club with very few rules. Not surprisingly, it was a woman who first blew the whistle: Fine wine consultant Maureen Downey:
“By 2002, Rudy was trying to sell funny wines through me and he couldn’t come up with receipts. If we were in any other industry, a kid that comes out of nowhere who claims that he’s buying all this stuff would absolutely be able to come up with receipts – you know you’d have credit cards, you’d have to have bank statements with wires, transfers. The fact that Rudy was never asked for receipts, except by (Burgundian winemaker) Lauren Ponsot and myself, is really astounding.“
Believed to be the trust-funded scion of an Asian billionaire beer baron, Rudy Kurniawan was the subject of glowing magazine features touting him at the vanguard of a brave new breed of wine collectors, sending profits, and interest in fine wine skyrocketing. By 2005, he became a player – spending millions at wine auctions and hosting lavish tasting dinner events. Dozens of rare vintage wines would be consumed. Rudy always asked for the empty bottles to be saved for his “collection.”
By 2007, he began to auction off his lavishly acquired cellar. He was praised by many as a connoisseur and specialist in rare Burgundies. In fact, Burgundy was his kryptonite. A certain photograph in an auction catalogue from Acker, Merrall & Condit is what sent the bullshit detectors flying for Lauren Ponsot, the proprietor of Burgundy’s Domaine Ponsot:
“This is the catalogue of the auction of April 2008 in New York: the page to present Domaine Ponsot. And, when you see the pictures here – there is a 1929 Clos de LaRoche. Ponsot started estate bottling in 1934 – so first of all, in the catalogue it was already wrong and fake.”
In search of the counterfeiter who dared to fake a grand cru, the winemaker left for New York that very day. It was a campaign that would stretch on for four years – but it began with a bombshell: April 25th, 2008 was the day that sent ripples swirling across the Riedel goblets of the fine wine universe. Before the gavel could drop on one of the most distinguished lots of Burgundies ever to be auctioned, Ponsot declared the wines to be counterfeit – resulting in the reluctant, last minute removal of the entire lot – some 97 bottles, of Ponsot wines. As news spread, investigations into the Rudy bottles began and by the time the possible damages were being tallied – American federal agents would finally take on the case.
It’s just after sunrise on the cool, misty morning of March 8th, 2012, when a convoy of FBI vehicles pulls up to the townhouse in the LA suburb of Arcadia where Rudy lived with his mother. Federal officers were just about to ram down the door when Rudy finally answered. Once inside, agents discovered all the makings of a counterfeit lab – old bottles, fake labels, papers, corks, cork inserting gizmos and lead casings. Rudy was nabbed, charged, convicted and is now serving time at the Taft Correctional Facility in Southern California.
But long fermenting mysteries persist. How could one man possibly have perpetrated a fraud of such magnitude? Why weren’t others charged? And how widespread was the impact of this crime? According to Maureen Downey, none of the wine has left the market:
“After the trial my team and I spent a lot of time going through all of the evidence that was seized. By our numbers there’s at least 550 million dollars of Rudy Kurniawan wines still circulating in the marketplace.”
One of the biggest conundrums raised by the film remains, why many of those suckered by the con man continue to sing his praises on camera, extolling his talents as a gifted taster of, and ambassador for, rare fine wines. Perhaps Rudy will explain all, when he finishes his prison term – some time in 2020. But according to Downey, we shouldn’t hold our breath waiting for a tell-all.
“I think he will be deported to Hong Kong and go right back to work – unless I can hire him first!’
Sour Grapes opens May 27th at the Bloor Cinema in Toronto
(All four screenings of the movie were completely sold out at Hot Docs and it is a two week run – FYI )
Kim Gertler is a Toronto-based journalist and documentary filmmaker keen about food, wine and culture. Kim is known for his work with CBC TV, Global News, Discovery Channel, BRAVO! and The Economist. He’s also a WSET certified (Level 3) wine educator who writes and produces content for the Constellation Academy of Wine. twitter: @kgertler