When bad guys sell bad wine

The other day I watched the documentary “Sour Grapes” about a crime that rocked the wine world. The crime and the nature of the victims make this compelling and genuinely enjoyable film an indictment of a certain invidious elite class of wine collector. It also impugns some of the vagaries of the necessarily subjective world of fine wine investment.

“Sour Grapes” tells the story of wine counterfeiter Rudy Kurniawan, an illegal Indonesian immigrant who befriended 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 2012 after an FBI raid of his Arcadia, Calif., home, Kurniawan was convicted of mail and wire fraud in 2013 and was sentenced in 2014 to 10 years in prison. He was also ordered to pay $28.4 million in restitution to seven of his victims and 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 Vincent Veridiamo, one of his defense attorneys, bluntly noted, “I’ve had organized crime cases with dead bodies for less time. That’s the truth. Dead bodies, less time.”

It stands to reason that Kurniawan had accomplices of one sort or another, yet no one else has been prosecuted to date. The film implies that that’s largely because nobody wants to point out that the emperor has no clothes and that one is either a believer or an apostate in the 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 revealing segment, Levy opens a bottle of Guigal 1985 Côte Rôtie La Mouline (a Kurniawan–sourced bottled bought at auction for $1,400), and exclaims it is “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?” says the incredulous Levy.

“I know this wine very well,” says the expert. “It’s not even close. I mean, it tastes like, you know, skunk juice.”
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, Galilee, Israel, 2015 (SRP $12; mevushal): this enjoyable if simple blend of 80 percent cabernet sauvignon and 20 percent merlot delivers berry fruit aromas and flavors with some appealing herbal notes, and a touch of smoke on the finish. An easy, everyday wine. Nothing fake about it. L’chaim!

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