“Sour Grapes” Tells A Tale of Massive Wine Fraud

“Sour Grapes” Tells A Tale of Massive Wine Fraud

Our L’chaim columnist discusses a new documentary

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Sour Grapes, which was first released to the UK in September 2016, and debuted here in the US on Netflix in November 2016, is about a crime that rocked the wine world. The crime was not anything, I hasten to add, as silly as red wine with fish (especially since that actually works in many cases). Rather, this was a real crime with real victims, even though some of these are unsympathetic after a fashion.

Indeed, it is the context of the crime and the nature of the victims that makes this compelling and genuinely enjoyable true-crime documentary film also serve as something of an indictment of a certain invidious elite class of wine collector. It also impugns, arguably quite fairly, some of the vagaries of the necessarily subjective world of fine wine investment.

Sour Grapes tells part of the fascinating story surrounding convicted wine counterfeiter Rudy Kurniawan, an illegal Indonesian immigrant who befriend wealthy fine wine collectors, helped drive up wine auction prices, and then defrauded many out of millions of dollars at various wine auctions. Arrested in March 2012 following an FBI raid of his Arcadia, CA, home, Kurniawan was convicted of mail and wire fraud in December 2013, and was sentenced in August 2014 to 10 years in prison. He was also ordered to pay $28.4 million in restitution to seven of his victims, and was made to forfeit $20 million in property. He will be deported after his sentence is served. It is presumed that the majority of his victims have not come forward out of embarrassment, and that there are an estimated 10,000 of Kurniawan’s bottles still in private collections, filtering through the global fine wine market.

Kurniawan was the first person to be tried and convicted in a U.S. federal court for counterfeiting wine, and his sentence was meant as something of an example. As Jerome H. Mooney, one of his two defense attorneys put it in the film, “the harm that was actually done in this case does not justify the kind of sentence that was handed out.” Indeed, as Vincent Veridiamo, the other defense attorney, bluntly noted, “I’ve had organized crime cases with dead bodies for less time. That’s the truth. Dead bodies, less time.” Though not presented in the film, at the time of the sentencing Mooney was quoted by The Guardian, a UK publication, as noting that, “Nobody died. Nobody lost their savings. Nobody lost their job.”

It stands to reason that Kurniawan had accomplices of one sort or another, yet nobody else has been prosecuted to date. Largely, implies the film, because nobody wants to point out that the ‘emperor has no clothes’ and that one is either a believer or an apostate in this bizarre world of fine-wine collecting.

“There is a kind of collaboration between the forger and the dupe,” novelist and wine critic Jay McInerney comments in the film. “People kind of want to be fooled. They really want to own this very rare bottle of wine that maybe doesn’t even exist anymore, and so you don’t really want to know if it’s a fake.”

Indeed, one of the particularly unsympathetic victims who participated in this documentary, Hollywood filmmaker Jefery Levy (producer and director of The Key), had become a close confidant of Kurniawan and still professes disbelief about the full extent of Kurniawan’s guilt. In one particularly revealing segment, Levy opens a bottle of Guigal 1985 Côte Rôtie La Mouline (a Kurniawan–sourced bottled bought at auction for a mere $1,400 a bottle), exclaiming it to be “fantastic” and “very real.” He then leads the film crew to a nearby fine wine store for confirmation. He offers it to one of the store’s wine experts who gives a taste and declares: “It’s garbage.”

“You don’t like it? You think it's Fake? Really,” inquires an incredulous Levy.

“I know this wine very well,” says the expert. “It’s not even close. It doesn’t have the life, it doesn’t have the verve and the vivacity and the dimension of a La Mouline ’85, which is almost like, if you had a really rich BLT with the egg on top. That’s how that wine tastes almost. This?” he notes ruefully, “I mean, it tastes like, you know, skunk juice.”

The film offers genuine drama, tick-tock detective work, with a handful of genuine “good guys,” insightful observers, and even several “hero”-types.

Yet some of the true-crime elements seem almost too fantastic to be real. In the raid of Kurniawan’s home, for example, FBI agent James P. Wynne narrates the overwhelmingly damning evidence discovered, noting, “I was stunned…as an FBI agent, if I had listed the 10 things that I would have liked to have obtained from a search, this was 10 times 10 times 10 times 10 to infinity.”

While the kosher wine market is still too small for fraud such as this to be that valuable—there is no active kosher wine auction market, for example—it could actually be very possible to pull off since there is much less scrutiny on high-end kosher wines. This cautionary tale is yet another reason to take after-market transactions to reputable dealers like the San Diego based Liquid Kosher.

The film still leaves unanswered many intriguing questions about Kurniawan, simply because much is still unknown about the man. Yet the overall story is enthralling, visually appealing, and genuinely well put together. One need not be a wine nerd to enjoy this 85- minute documentary. While watching, I quaffed several satisfyingly inexpensive glasses of Recanati, Yasmin Red; an easy, everyday wine. Nothing fake about it.

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