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In December 2013, the Justice Department concluded its first successful prosecution of a wine fraud case when Rudy Kurniawan, an Indonesian national, was sentenced to 10 years in prison for counterfeiting rare and very expensive wines. The conviction was the conclusion of a series of incidents that rocked the world of fine-wine collecting to its foundations, but which went largely unnoticed otherwise, even though it fundamentally shifted the perspective of an entire industry.
In Sour Grapes, filmmakers Reuben Atlas and Jerry Rothwell thoroughly and concisely detail the progression of Kurniawan’s wide-ranging fraud in a style that merges an Antiques Roadshow-style fascination with rare wines with a Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous-type fixation on the spending habits of the overly affluent. The fact that a couple of Hollywood types were caught up in the deception only increases the likelihood that the documentary will become a staple of true crime-related accounts of the free-spending years preceding the Great Recession.
Surprisingly though, the film is rather vague about Kurniawan’s arrival in the U.S., although court records indicate that at some point he overstayed his student visa to settle in the bedroom community of Arcadia, Calif., south of Los Angeles. By the time he came to the attention of various merchants and fellow wine enthusiasts in the early 2000s, he’d developed an expert’s palate and a preference for expensive wines, particularly high-end Burgundies.
Still in his early 30s, Kurniawan soon began buying up expensive bottlings on the wine-auction market, which had grown significantly in a speculative bubble similar to the run-up in the stock and real estate markets in the early 2000s. Kurniawan’s next move was to begin auctioning off the substantial wine collection that he’d acquired. Although the source of his financing was consistently unclear, many observers unwittingly recirculated rumors that attributed his wealth to the backing of family business activities in Jakarta that allowed him to acquire enough inventory to auction off $35 million worth of rare wines in 2006 alone.
Gregarious and generous with his extensive cellar, Kurniawan was attracting a great deal of attention in the small community of wealthy wine collectors, not all of it positive. Billionaire businessman Bill Koch, who had previously been burned by another famous fraudster, turned up $2 million worth of wine in his cellar purchased from Kurniawan that he considered counterfeit. The most dramatic development transpired at a 2008 New York auction, when French winemaker Laurent Ponsot interrupted the proceedings to demand the withdrawal of several lots attributed to his winery and sourced from Kurniawan that he could prove were fake. Ponsot eventually teamed up with an FBI unit tasked with investigating art forgeries and financial crimes to target Kurniawan, resulting in the collector’s 2012 arrest on mail and wire fraud charges for counterfeiting wine.
If it weren’t so thoroughly documented, the film’s account of Kurniawan’s crimes might seem entirely implausible, but when the FBI raided his home, they found all of the bottles, fake labels and blending instructions for transforming lesser vintages into finer wines that any sophisticated counterfeiter would need to run a profitable operation. Amateur video, sourced from uncredited contributors, also reveals Kurniawan hosting raucous parties and indirectly incriminating himself on several occasions by joking about refilling and reselling rare wine bottles.
Directors Rothwell (How to Change the World) and Atlas (Brothers Hypnotic) have pulled together many of the major players in the case, including Ponsot, wine authentication expert Maureen Downey (who raised early suspicions about Kurniawan’s sales activities) and Hollywood filmmakers Jef Levy (The Key) and Arthur M. Sarkissian (Rush Hour), both of whom still express disbelief that their buddy Rudy is a convicted crook who appears to have convinced them that he was a legitimate wine collector.
A major coup was clearly an interview with Koch, who jovially guides the camera crew around his massive cellar and puts his personal wine fraud investigator at their disposal. The filmmakers break some notably new ground in their examination of Kurniawan’s origins in Indonesia, pointing to a potentially significant connection to family members accused of defrauding Jakarta banks who could potentially have been involved in the financing of his operations.
In fact, the film’s roster of sources is so extensive that the intent almost begins to represent an orchestrated effort to deter further attempts at wine fraud. Kurniawan’s substantial 10-year sentence and requirement to pay $28 million in restitution to his victims would appear to send a similar message. After such a substantial career in counterfeiting, the larger issue remains the untold bottles of fake Kurniawan wine still assumed to be in circulation among private buyers and auction patrons that may number in the tens of thousands.
Production companies: Met Film, Faites Un Voeu
Directors: Jerry Rothwell, Reuben Atlas
Producers: Al Morrow, Catherine Simeon
Executive producers: Nick Ware, Phil Hunt, Stewart Le Marechal, Maxime Owyszer, Jonny Persey, Compton Ross, Barbara Truyen
Director of photography: Simon Fanthorpe
Editor: James Scott
Music: Lionel Corsini
World sales: Dogwoof, London
Not rated, 85 minutes
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