Review: ‘Sour Grapes’

Hot Docs 2016

3 mins read

Sour Grapes
(USA/France/UK, 86 min.)
Dir. Jerry Rothwell, Reuben Atlas
Programme: Special Presentations (World Premiere)


Raise a glass to Jerry Rothwell and Reuben Atlas for their breezy caper film Sour Grapes. Both wine buffs and folks who favour Fuzion will find this doc appealing to the palate. Sour Grapes chronicles the bizarre yet true scandal of young aspiring wino Rudy Kurniawan, who bamboozled the top players in America’s wine scene in an exorbitant case of fraud. Paced like a thriller with aromatic notes of journalistic intrigue, Sour Grapes is a finely balanced blend.

Rothwell (How to Change the World) and Atlas (Brother Hypnotic) chronicle the depth of Kurniawan’s elaborate con by introducing heavy drinkers in the wine scene as they recount the pleasures in imbibing a $20 000 bottle. The doc gives audiences ample tasting notes with which to appreciate the wine connoisseurs’ delights, especially once Kurniawan emerges on the scene with an impressively acute palate and an aggressive habit of snapping up pricy bottles at auction. Kurniawan doesn’t fool everyone, though, and one shrewd billionaire collector sniffs a rotten bottle and escalates an investigation after losing over a million dollars in counterfeit wine. (Including several dusty bottles alleged to be from the collection of American President Thomas Jefferson, purchased from another fraudster on the scene.)

Kurniawan, the film reveals, brews his own game by inflating the price of precious vintages on the market and then trading counterfeit bottles at a premium. The film shows a case of sour grapes as collectors pay high prices for vintages that don’t even exist outside of the forgeries concocted in Kurniawan’s kitchen. The film humorously shows how easily a convincing label may dupe one’s palate—and how the con man actually had potential as a winemaker if only he’d been legit.

Enter a wronged vintner in Burgundy, a whip-smart auction house appraiser, and a former CIA investigator. Soon, Rudy’s game assumes the shelf life of a bottle of Baby Duck. The words “California merlot” receive their most disdainful reading since Alexander Payne’s Sideways as Sour Grapes reveals the young man as a fraud. Sour Grapes humorously unfolds the elaborate nature of Kurniawan’s deception, but the players also reveal the overall laziness (or, as the film implies, complicity) of the auctioneer behind the record-breaking sales. Similarly, some of the con man’s victims illustrate the persuasiveness of Kurniawan’s charade as they simply refuse to believe the charges against their friend and look forward to toasting him once he leaves prison. Especially fine is the film’s underlying commentary on capitalism and frivolity as the filmmakers situate this wine hoax within the greater con of the 2008 American economic meltdown. Cheers to Sour Grapes!

Update: Sour Grapes opens in Vancouver at the Vancity Theatre on Friday, August 12.

Pat Mullen is the publisher of POV Magazine. He holds a Master’s in Film Studies from Carleton University where his research focused on adaptation and Canadian cinema. Pat has also contributed to outlets including The Canadian Encyclopedia, Paste, That Shelf, Sharp, Xtra, and Complex. He is the vice president of the Toronto Film Critics Association and an international voter for the Golden Globe Awards.

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