Film Review: ‘Sour Grapes’

A real-life comic mystery fit for Hercule Poirot, complete with a cast of privileged dupes the average viewer probably won’t feel much sympathy for.

Sour Grapes Documentary Review
Courtesy of Dogwoof Global

“Sour Grapes” investigates an embarrassing scandal that rocked the world of highest-end wine collectors — and left as many as 40,000 “fake” bottles still circulating in their milieu — approaching the stunningly expansive scam as a real-life comic mystery fit for Hercule Poirot, complete with a cast of privileged dupes for whom the average viewer isn’t likely to feel much sympathy. Those already interested in the mechanizations of the wine biz will be fascinated by this doc feature by Jerry Rothwell (“Deep Water,” “How to Change the World”) and Reuben Atlas (“Brothers Hypnotic”), though such rarefied tastes are hardly a prerequisite to appreciate this highly entertaining stranger-than-fiction saga. A Canadian theatrical run launches May 27, and other territories should eventually follow suit.

“Bright Lights, Big City” novelist turned wine columnist Jay McInerney says that the auction scene for sought-after vintages began in earnest with the late 1990s advent of the dot-com boom, when hordes of nouveaux riches were seeking new avenues for their conspicuous consumption. Not long after the turn of the millennium, their rarefied ranks were joined by one Rudy Kurniawan, an Indonesian of Chinese ethnic roots with impeccable English, impressively deep wine knowledge and an ingratiating manner. His precise background (notably the source of his evident wealth) was unclear, but he was readily accepted into the exclusive tasting groups of such new BFFs as movie producer Arthur Sarkissian (“Rush Hour”) and TV/film director Jef Levy (“Inside Monkey Zetterland”), both of whom still can’t quite believe their pal was capable of any wrongdoing.

Figuring “this young guy” was just a “rich kid looking for something to do,” journalist Corie Brown was nonetheless struck by the huge amounts of money Kurniawan began spending at Christie’s and elsewhere, his high bids “ruining the little club” of older, established collectors. Though the newcomer’s generosity in sharing his booty waylaid some suspicion, Brown and others began to note he’d almost singlehandedly “revolutionized the market” by hiking up prices — rendering them even more valuable for re-sale. Between 2003 and 2006, morethan $35 million in bottles were sold from Kurniawan’s cellar.

Meanwhile, a couple prominent figures were making a personal crusade of cracking down on fraudulent wine sales. One was Laurent Ponsot, who was appalled to discover fake wines being sold under the falsified label of his family’s historic vineyards in Burgundy. Another was billionaire collector Bill Koch (yes, brother to notorious conservative activists Charles and David), who was equally displeased to realize he’d spent several million acquiring counterfeit bottles. Their private investigations eventually dovetailed with those of FBI agent Jim Wynne, who found himself increasingly zeroing in on the “Gen-X Great Gatsby” figure of Kurniawan … or whatever his real name was/is.

The latter, seen in much archival footage here (his tasting buddies appeared almost as enamored of videotaping themselves as they were of wine), declined the filmmakers’ interview requests, so he remains something of an enigma. But there’s an undeniable fascination in watching the onion layers of a brilliant disguise gradually (if still only partly) peeled back, revealing someone whose motivations remain murky — but whose resourcefulness in playing a shell game with top-tier marks was remarkable. He played his role so convincingly that Levy, for one, still seems to believe it was all just some sad misunderstanding, even after an FBI raid uncovered a large-scale re-bottling and re-labeling operation in the suspect’s Southern California home.

The intricacies of identifying such “fake wines” are absorbingly laid out here, and sometimes comic in themselves, as in instances where a bottle sold at a jaw-dropping premium supposedly contained a vintage that didn’t actually exist in the year its label claimed. But it’s the personalities that give “Sour Grapes” much of its kick. As fine wine consultant Maureen Downey notes, the overwhelmingly male-dominated field of highest-end collectors (she says at industry events she routinely used to be asked whose girlfriend she was) is fueled by “what Americans call ‘F.U. money’ … a kind of money most human beings never experience.” It’s a world of swagger, camaraderie and one-upmanship whose participants probably think they have more in common with James Bond than Richie Rich. But few viewers are likely to shed a tear for the gullibility of such wealthy connoisseurs, whose enthusiasms sometimes look like simply an elitist form of hoarding.

Appropriately, “Sour Grapes” is packaged as a sort of luxury caper narrative, complete with handsome lensing of various enviable locales and a score by Marseille’s Lionel Corsini, aka DJ Oil, that runs a droll gamut from quasi-retro lounge music to the kind of backing that might’ve accompanied a mid-1960s Agatha Christie adaptation. All tech contributions are sleekly polished.

Film Review: ‘Sour Grapes’

Reviewed online, San Francisco, May 11, 2016. (In Hot Docs. Also in Sheffield DocFest.) Running time: <strong>86 MIN.</strong>

  • Production: (Documentary — U.S.-France-U.K.) A MET Film, Faites un Voeu presentation, in co-production with ARTE France, VPRO, in association with Pandora Film Center, Head Gear Films, Metrol Technology. (World sales: Dogwoof, London.) Produced by Al Morrow, Catherine Simeon. Executive producers, Phil Hunt, Stewart Le Marechal, Maxime Owyszer, Jonny Persey, Compton Ross, Barbara Truyen, Nick Ware. Co-producers, Joshua Levine, Sean Mattison.
  • Crew: Directed by Jerry Rothwell, Reuben Atlas, based on an idea by Nick Ware. Camera (color, HD), Simon Fanthorpe, Rothwell, Frank Larson, Jean-Michel Dury, Jerome Huguenin-Virchaux; editor, James Scott; composer, DJ Oil (Lionel Corsini); sound, Ludovic Elias; sound designer/re-recording mixer, Vincent Watts; assistant director, Lauriane Jussiau.
  • With: Laurent Ponsot, Jay McInerney, Jef Levy, Maureen Downey, Rajat Parr, Arthur Sarkissian, Corie Brown, Don Cornwell, David Fredson, Bill Koch, Brad Goldstein, Jim Wynne, Jerry Mooney, Vincent Veridiamo, Jason Hernandez. (English, French dialogue)