Putting the Con in Connoisseur
Sour Grapes (2016)
The best movies are supposedly about one thing, but – if you pay attention to the subtext – are really about something else. “Sour Grapes” begins as a movie about how a wealthy young Chinese-Indonesian, Rudy Kurniawan, showed up in Los Angeles and permanently altered the way wines are sold across the world. It ends as a movie about something else entirely; but to their great shame, the directors bottle it.
The first main twist is spoiled in all the publicity materials: Mr. Kurniawan wasn’t really brokering a remarkable collection of vintage wine. He was counterfeiting them in his kitchen and then duping a variety of macho millionaires who flaunt their wealth through their wine cellars, several of whom are featured. The movie scores a major coup in filming inside the home and colossal collection of billionaire Bill Koch; but when he explains the prices he paid for fakes, it’s hard to feel too sympathetic. These are bottles of wine that cost more than a car. Or a house.
A financial journalist named Corie Brown realized how Mr. Kurniawan was changing the market for wine collecting, which got him international attention – including that of the F.B.I. But once Mr. Koch realized that he was a fraud, he unleashed the full depth of his personal resources into a private investigation. Directors Jerry Rothwell and Reuben Atlas have apparently built the film from the footage and resources from the eventual court case, supplemented with talking-head interviews with wine experts such as Jay McInerney and members of the wine-tasting groups he charmed.
But it’s after about an hour of this that the movie drops a genuine bombshell that, if they had pursued this, would have propelled this movie into the stratosphere. When you see it you will understand. Why on earth did they drop that line of enquiry? Were they afraid for their safety? Did their budget, language skills or international knowledge not allow it? Or did they not have the imagination to understand the information they had in their hands? Instead, the movie takes the easy way out. It was clearly more pleasant to follow around charming vintner and amateur sleuth Laurent Ponsot on his foggy Burgundy hillsides. You can understand why Mr. Ponsot gave up his quest once he had testified against his man: He is not in the business of unpicking other people’s secrets. But for two documentary film directors to shy away from probing into major international crime and corruption leaves this, at base, more than a little sour.