There’s something about the allure of really expensive wine. It tends to make folks with a lot of money want to spend, spend, spend. But when a deal seems too good to be true, it probably is. In fact, wine fraud has been around for thousands of years and it shows no signs of stopping.
I told you about a few of the more interesting wine frauds back in June and now, one of them is the subject of a recently released, fantastic documentary. For one of the other stories a movie is in the offing starring Matthew McConaughey. Alright, alright, alright.
- Rudy Kurniawan –
To recap, Rudy Kurniawan was known in wine circles to have an amazing palate and extensive wine knowledge. He bought and sold rare and expensive wines at auction at sky-high prices. But eventually he was passing off cheap wine in expensive bottles. We all know about art fraud, but wine fraud is harder to identify. After all, you can’t identify the wine with certainty by tasting it. But if you’re selling an old wine from a famous vineyard, and that vineyard owner realizes that you’re selling a bottle they never made, the jig may be up. And that’s what happened to Rudy. A few producers saw the wines he was selling whose labels looked like theirs. Problem was they knew they did not make those wines and they notified the auction houses. And the feds.
Rudy was tried and convicted of the fraud and sentenced to prison until 2020. Now, documentarians Jerry Rothwell and Reuben Atlas have given us the inside story of Rudy’s rise and fall, and of the world of wine collectors who chase rare, high-end wines to fill their collections and their egos. The movie, “Sour Grapes,” is on Netflix and it’s very well done.
The movie follows Rudy through his clubby wine tastings and his bids at auction. But we never really get to know him because he would not agree to be interviewed by the filmmakers. We do see the evidence of his “craft” when his house is raided and we see his bottling operation all over his kitchen.
We do get to know several of the players in this story, including one of Burgundy’s vintners, Laurent Ponsot. Ponsot discovered that a fake wine, supposedly from his family’s historic vineyard but labeled with a year they didn’t make the wine, was being peddled by Kurniawan at auction. We follow Ponsot as he tries to right this wrong, notifying the auction house, meeting with Kurniawan, and working with the prosecutor, even testifying at trial.
We also watch the club of the high-end collectors who own so many of these extraordinary wines. Theirs is a world of wealth, competition and pride in being part of the rarified world of exclusive wine collecting. When the fraud is revealed, we see some of them unable to believe they could have been a victim.
2. Thomas Jefferson and Hardy Rodenstock
This is the story of the “1787 Lafitte” belonging to Thomas Jefferson. A rare wine seller named Hardy Rodenstock brought rare wines to major auction houses where wealthy collectors were thrilled to buy them. One such very rare wine was the 1787 Lafitte with the notation “Th. J,” which sold to the Forbes family for a whopping $157,000. That’s for a single bottle.
The background offered about the wine was that Thomas Jefferson had brought this Bordeaux gem back from France to be part of his extensive wine collection. However, through a series of historical and scientific investigations it was discovered that the wine was a fake.
When Bill Koch (of the politically active Koch family) found that Rodenstock had sold him some of these fake bottles (through an intermediary), he sued. In 2014 he won a $12 million judgment against Rodenstock.
This fascinating story of intrigue and sleuthing was the subject of the aptly named book “The Billionaire’s Vinegar.” Recently it was announced that the book will be made into a movie starring Matthew McConaughey.