Jerry Rothwell and Reuben Atlas’ Sour Grapes enjoys its world premiere at Hot Docs on Tuesday (May 3). The directors spoke with realscreen about making a film on the high-stakes world of wine collecting. Check out an exclusive clip of the doc below.
They say you can’t put new wine into old bottles, but as the documentary Sour Grapes demonstrates, anyone building an empire on counterfeit wine has little time for proverbs.
The film – directed by How to Change the World helmer Jerry Rothwell (pictured below, left) and Brothers Hypnotic filmmaker Reuben Atlas (right) – follows the baffling case of Rudy Kurniawan (pictured above), a Chinese-Indonesian oenophile who stormed the American wine market in 2003. A keen collector with an encyclopedic knowledge of wine and a mysterious background, he became popular with exclusive tasting groups in New York and Los Angeles. In 2008, his collection was said to contain more than 50,000 bottles, and he was rumored to spend around US$1 million a month on his cellar.
Over time, however, clients such as billionaire Bill Koch, who bought about 200 bottles from Kurniawan, and vigneron Laurent Ponsot of the Domaine Ponsot estate in Burgundy, France, began questioning the authenticity of the wines. When the collector’s Los Angeles home was raided by FBI officials in March 2012, thousands of fake labels, rubber stamps marked with vintages and wine-making utensils were found. Kurniawan was convicted in December 2013 of mail fraud and sentenced in August 2014 to 10 years in prison, a US$20 million fine and $28 million in restitution to victims.
The two directors met at Kurniawan’s trial in 2013, which was “saturated with feature doc makers,” laughs Rothwell.
“Every witness that got off the stand was surrounded by people trying to make contact,” he recalls. “Reuben and I always found ourselves at the back.”
The pair had been working separately on projects about the case for about a year. Rothwell first heard of the story through a French producer who lived in Burgundy, and he had interviewed Ponsot ahead of the trial. Atlas, too, was trying to make contact. Both directors say they had similar perspectives on the story and when they eventually convened in December 2013, Rothwell and Atlas’ respective bases in Brighton, UK, and Brooklyn, U.S., catered to the international scope of the case.
“It’s a story where it’s hard to get people to talk about it, because either you’ve been conned and you feel foolish, or you just don’t want to talk about that, or people think you’re involved,” says Rothwell. “It’s one that’s taken a long time to get people confident enough to speak about it.”
Despite the initial hurdles securing access, the aptly titled Sour Grapes found backing relatively quickly. London-based distributor Dogwoof boarded the film at Sheffield Doc/Fest’s MeetMarket in 2013, where Rothwell was pitching the film on his own. It was the first project Dogwoof had acquired at such early stages, and the first doc they financed from scratch.
The film was funded almost entirely though pre-sales (ARTE France, VPRO, DR, SVT, YLE, DBS, Medialaan among others) in collaboration with Met Film and French co-producer Faites un Voeu. Additional funding has come from EU Media, UK tax credits and CNC.
Sour Grapes, which will have its international premiere at Sheffield Doc/Fest in June, joins the ranks of such popular wine docs as Jason Wise’s Somm (2012), David Kennard’s A Year in Burgundy and David Roach and Warwick Ross’ Red Obsession. A challenge, Atlas notes, was humanizing this high-brow world, and showing that wealthy collectors were victimized by Kurniawan.
“The world of wine collectors is this ultra one-percent world. And when they’re talking about wine, if you’re a viewer just hearing about the story and you’re not into wine and don’t respect the art or collecting, it’s like, ‘Oh, these poor rich people got conned, give me a break,’ right?” says Atlas.
“But I think something that was interesting was that once we started delving into the story on a deeper kind of level, there was a sympathy and a sort of respect for the idea that these bottles could be worth $20,000, or worth as much as art that you put on the wall.”
The film is comprised of interviews with the likes of Koch, who allows access into a labyrinthine cellar; as well as the detective-like Ponsot, who has spent the last five years tracking down individuals who fake his estate’s wines; and Arthur M. Sarkissian, a Hollywood producer who was friends with Kurniawan.
Some particularly impressive archival footage comes from about six hours of tape from 2002 shot by a producer pitching a wine show. Kurniawan was featured only in about four or five short segments, but he is captured, for example, joking about scamming his clients. The material was obtained by Koch as part of his case against Kurniawan.
“What was very interesting to us was at that time, that’s just when he’s, as far as we know, beginning the fake. So neither the filmmaker or the people he’s with really know what he’s up to,” says Rothwell.
“But we as the audience start to realize it, and there are these tiny little tantalizing clues where he’s kind of saying, ‘I scam people,’ and amazing, brazen things in a way where he actually says what he’s doing, but obviously says it in a joke.”
Both directors say the making of the film went significantly faster than their previous work, due in large part to certain elements of the story. While Rothwell’s How to Change the World took seven years from conception to finished film, the active production period on Sour Grapes took half the time.
“We’d both gone through the processes of grant writing and re-cutting trailers and things like that,” says Atlas. “And this definitely seemed to go a lot faster, because of the con man story, and it’s a crime. And true crime in the wine world? It was very sellable.”
Next up for Atlas is a feature doc on the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN), co-directed with Sam Pollard. The film is in mid- to late-stages of editing. Rothwell, meanwhile, is about to start the edit on a film on Indian educational researcher Sugata Mitra.
- Check out an exclusive clip from Sour Grapes below
- The film screens at Hot Docs tomorrow (May 3) as well as on Thursday (May 5) and Saturday (May 7)