Sour Grapes (2016)

First published by RealCrime Magazine

“Part of it is the detective story of tracking it all down,” says Bill Koch, in an attempt to describe his love of high-end collecting. Yet when about 400 bottles of rare wines in his collection – worth roughly $4 million – proved to be fake, the indignant multi-billionaire undertook a different kind of detective work, on a crusade to expose the counterfeiters. Meanwhile, Burgundy-based winemaker Laurent Ponsoir set about trying to wash the dirt from his vineyard’s integrity. Their parallel investigations circled one Rudy Kurniawan, a charismatic ‘playboy’ dealer whose well-stocked cellar was the source of many fakes.

Reuben Atlas and Jerry Rothwell’s documentary Sour Grapes traces a massive fraud where one connoisseur’s con may just have tainted an entire liquid market. Such was “the elegance of the hustle” (as Koch’s lead investigator Brad Goldstein puts it) that many of Kurniawan’s marks in LA’s entertainment industry still seem unable quite to accept that they were ever tricked in the first place (and remain uncertain whether to refer to their friend in the present or past tense).

Much as the fine wine auctions – and the product’s escalating prices – began in the dot-com boom of the Nineties, and Kurniawan’s downfall coincided with the banking collapse of 2008, Sour Grapes ends up being a tale of more than one kind of dodgy dealing, with wine just making more palatable a broader observation on how hard it is to see the emperor’s new clothes in unregulated markets. Kurniawan’s crimes were not victimless, even if those who bought his disguised blends can probably cover any losses that they were unable to recover through the courts – but as an emblem of how market bubbles work, and how easily monetary values can become divorced from reality, Sour Grapes comes with a full finish.

© Anton Bitel