Jerry Rothwell is not your typical documentary filmmaker. Whereas contemporaries such as Michael Moore and Morgan Spurlock have a specific style and/or recurring theme, Rothwell is much more broad in his material. Previous films have included Donor Unknown, which follows a young woman – JoEllen Marsh – trying to track down her sperm donor father, and How To Change The World, which chronicles the founding of Greenpeace in 1970s Vancouver. He has also made films about a punk band whose members are developmentally delayed, a sailor, and Ethiopian runners. Clearly, Rothwell is a man not bound by any one element.
His latest film delves into a world most probably did not even know existed, that of counterfeit wine. Sour Grapes tells the story of high-end wine tasters and collectors and how they sucked in by Suave con-man Rudy Kurniawan. A young Indonesian man, Rudy was something of an anomaly in the world of expensive wine auctions. Most of his friends and acquaintances chalked it up to him being a trust fund baby with a hobby, who were impressed with his intelligence and genial personality.
Kurnaiwan had gotten into wine “selling” right at the start of the financial boom in the early 2000s. In no time at all he had obtained a very substantial personal collection. He claimed many rare vintages and sought after Burgundys, and other alleged expensive bottles. For nearly ten years Rudy was buying and selling, attending auctions and making friends with the most elite of collectors – including billionaire Bill Koch. Then it all went downhill, thanks to the efforts of astute winemaker Laurent Ponsot.
What makes Rothwell a great filmmaker is his ability to let his subjects tell the story. The rise and downfall of Rudy Kurniawan is told through the film’s interview subjects – which include the aforementioned Koch, Ponsot, a Hollywood producer, a novelist, and even an FBI agent. The movie is billed as a red-and-white thriller, and while it doesn’t contain psychological distress or dismemberment, it does play very well in the charming villain category, as well the multi-layered aspects of a criminal mastermind.
And yet, like any good filmmaker, Rothwell is careful to show both sides of the story. While Rudy did not respond to the filmmaker’s request to be interviewed – all of his appearances are shown using archival footage – the film does show how many in the inner wine circle supported Rudy, at least initially, in part because, as one member put it, there was no way they could believe Rudy could pull something like this off, he wasn’t that smart. Ultimately, Rudy Kurniawan was sentenced to 10 years for mail fraud. He is scheduled to be released on November 23, 2020.
As a die-hard rugged beer drinker, I never thought I would find myself writing about wine. This film confirmed some of my (and society-at-large’s I’m sure) preconceptions about wine – namely that it’s for the rich and slightly pretentious, while simultaneously teaching me things I never thought I wanted to know – the bottling process, vintages, sizes, etc. That value, combined with the taut storytelling, is what makes Sour Grapes a success