Rudy Kurniawan was a rich twenty-something with a naïve fondness for wine when he first started rubbing elbows with the high rollers at wine auctions, in the early two-thousands—“Just a geeky kid drinking Merlot,” as one veteran collector recalls. But he quickly developed a taste for Burgundy, a far more complex realm of connoisseurship, and was soon spending a million dollars every month on wine, much of it at boozy dinners with luminaries like the wine critic Robert Parker, who found Kurniawan to be a “very sweet and generous man.” Like other wealthy collectors, Kurniawan also sold treasures from his cellar. In 2006, the auction house Acker Merrall & Condit broke records selling off thirty-five million dollars’ worth of his wines. Two years later, at the Manhattan restaurant Cru, Acker held a sale proffering more of Kurniawan’s “rare gems,” promising that they had been authenticated by “some of Burgundy’s most discerning (and difficult) connoisseurs.” The lots included bottles of the coveted Domaine Ponsot Clos Saint-Denis, from the years 1945, 1949, and 1966. The only problem, as the proprietor of the estate pointed out, was that Domaine Ponsot did not start producing that particular wine until 1982.
This was the most conspicuous sign that there was something very off about Kurniawan’s collection. As recounted in “Sour Grapes,” a documentary débuting at film festivals this month and on Netflix in November, many more suspicious details emerged in 2012, after F.B.I. agents raided Kurniawan’s Italianate home in a quiet suburb of Los Angeles, turning up shopping bags brimming with old corks, pristine labels bundled up like currency, and recipes for faking aged Bordeaux. It turned out that scores of bottles from Kurniawan’s cellar had been produced not by the acclaimed châteaux on their labels but by Kurniawan himself. He stockpiled empty bottles, and, with the care of a chemist, refilled them with mixtures of lesser wines blended to taste like the real thing. Two years ago, he became the first person in the United States to be convicted of wine fraud. He’s currently serving a ten-year sentence in a California prison for what is thought to be the largest case of wine counterfeiting in history.
“Sour Grapes,” by the documentary filmmakers Jerry Rothwell and Reuben Atlas, traces Kurniawan’s ascent to the inner sanctum of connoisseurship, then rehashes the detective work that led to his downfall and scandalized the world of wine collectors. The movie unfolds in the same tick-tock manner as any true-crime story, following the sleuths who set out to expose Kurniawan’s fraud. There’s Laurent Ponsot, the cashmere-clad, third-generation doyen of Domaine Ponsot, a Gallic Sherlock Holmes determined to cleanse the “dirt on the integrity of Burgundy” by tracking down the source of Acker’s counterfeit bottles. Even more tenacious is the billionaire Bill Koch, the brother of Charles and David, who’s discovered that his wine cellar—a chandeliered wonder in his Palm Beach mansion—contains more than four million dollars in fakes. In his efforts to track down Kurniawan, Koch spends many millions more soliciting cork experts, label gurus, former C.I.A. agents, and private investigators. Kurniawan, an Indonesian of Chinese descent, had indicated that he was the son of a wealthy family with business interests in Asia; Koch’s investigation was unable to corroborate this, but it did turn up evidence suggesting that two of Kurniawan’s uncles were responsible for defrauding Indonesian banks of hundreds of millions of dollars. In “Sour Grapes,” we see photos of the modest Jakarta hardware shop that Kurniawan had listed as his address on a U.S. visa application, and records showing that his name was borrowed from that of an Indonesian badminton star. (His birth name is Zhen Wang Huang; according to his lawyers, his father gave him the new name to protect him from the disadvantages of living as an ethnically Chinese person in Indonesia.)
Despite these scraps of Kurniawan’s history, what is missing from “Sour Grapes” is the same thing that has eluded previous chronicles of Kurniawan’s rise and fall, which is the person behind the con. Kurniawan declined to be interviewed for the documentary, and has refused to talk to the press since he’s been in prison. What we do see of him in the film is cobbled together from recordings of dinners, tastings, and auctions, and from footage from an abandoned pilot for a food TV show taped in 2002. Like many great con artists, Kurniawan is simultaneously charming and self-effacing—a kid who ends sentences with “man,” pulls practical jokes to leaven oenophile solemnity, and seems, in retrospect, not altogether invested in maintaining his ruse. (At one lavish dinner, filmed for the TV pilot, someone asks Kurniawan whether he’s independently wealthy. “No, I’m broke,” he replies. “I scam people.”) At the height of his influence in the wine world, Kurniawan was widely respected for his generosity, his encyclopedic knowledge, and his unusually sensitive palate. But the most intriguing aspects of his character and his crime remain elusive: Was his scheme the result of years of planning, or was it a desperate get-rich-quick scheme brought on by mounting debts and a lavish life style? Was he motivated by money alone, or by a yearning to join an élite in-crowd of drinkers? Did he have help in pulling off the scam? “It’s impossible that he could have done it on his own,” Ponsot says in “Sour Grapes,” calculating that it would have taken one person nearly two years, working twenty-four hours a day, to fake all the bottles Kurniawan is accused of counterfeiting.
What “Sour Grapes” does succeed in conveying is a detailed, and largely unsympathetic, portrait of the élite stratum of wine collectors that Kurniawan so spectacularly infiltrated. His scam unfolded against the backdrop of the 2008 financial crisis, and his circle of boys’-club oenophiles comes across as a bunch of tone-deaf hedonists. While being trailed by the documentary’s filmmakers, the collector Jefery Levy, a Hollywood film producer who wears his gold aviator sunglasses indoors, brags about guzzling two hundred thousand dollars in wine with a gang of connoisseurs who call themselves the “Twelve Angry Men”; on another occasion, one of Levy’s drinking buddies**,** a private-equity investor, stares into the camera to volunteer advice on the best years for French sparkling wine. “Buy ’96 Champagne. All day,” he says, swirling a wine glass the size of a fishbowl while seated in the back of a chauffeured S.U.V. “If you can’t afford that, buy ’02. If you can’t afford that, drink fucking beer.” The documentarians travel to a bacchanalian wine auction in Florida, where they find white-haired bidders getting cheered on by young women in form-fitting T-shirts—“If you buy this, you will almost certainly get laid!” the auctioneer cries—and surface old e-mails from John Kapon, the owner of Acker Merrall & Condit, regaling clients with tasting notes praising bottles’ “rich acids lingering like call girls at casinos.” (One of the few women featured in the film, the respected wine consultant Maureen Downey, says, “When I was younger, I’d walk into the tastings and everyone would immediately ask whose date I was.”)
The schadenfreude in seeing these entitled rich men get duped is compounded, in “Sour Grapes,” by the obvious pleasure the filmmakers take in exposing the broader illusions in the rarified world of wine. Very old bottles of the sort that Kurniawan faked are so few and far between—and often so inconsistent from one to the next—that few connoisseurs know exactly how they’re meant to taste. The counterfeiting experts shown in the film peer through jeweller’s loupes at the pixillation of labels, the cleanliness of capsules, or the engravings on corks, but only once do we see drinkers attempting to discern real wine from fake based on flavor alone. Over a midday charcuterie plate, Levy opens a bottle of Guigal 1985 Côte Rôtie La Mouline—a score from Kurniawan’s 2006 auction, where it sold for fourteen hundred dollars a bottle. It’s “fantastic” and “very real,” Levy raves; his pal the private-equity investor agrees it’s “as good as it gets.” The film crew then accompanies Levy to a nearby wine store, where he offers its dapper “chief taster” a sip from the same bottle. “It’s garbage,” he says. “It tastes like skunk juice.”
Amid so much macho bluster and wishful thinking, “Sour Grapes” suggests, the con man can start to seem like the lone truth-teller. In one surreal scene, taken from the 2002 television pilot, an auctioneer’s gavel smacks down on a lot of wine that’s just sold for an astronomical sum, and Kurniawan taps the shoulder of a fellow-collector seated next to him. “Dude, I just opened that bottle on Thursday,” Kurniawan whispers, pointing at a listing in the auction catalogue and shaking his head in wonder at the price. “Can I refill it and put the cork back?”
The documentary “Sour Grapes” retraces the detective work that uncovered what is thought to be the largest case of wine counterfeiting in history.
Rudy Kurniawan rose to the inner sanctum of wine collectors and auctioned off bottles for record-breaking sums. Photograph by Ricardo DeAratanha / Los Angeles Times / Getty
Stashes of old corks and labels were discovered in Kurniawan’s home, in the Los Angeles suburbs. *Photograph courtesy Dogwoof Pictures *