Sour Grapes (2016): Schadenfreude

I don’t even drink wine, so my understanding of the collector’s impulse is bound to be limited. Nonetheless, the themes flowing through Sour Grapes, smoothly prepped in the movie equivalent of a decanter, provide a certain sparkle on the tongue, a deeply flavoured experience with a tinge of Schadenfreude. The latter is essential, as it frames the human impulse behind what is ultimately no more than an astute con.

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There’s a palpable story at the roots of this documentary: Rudy Kurniawan, a skinny, wise-beyond-his-years kind of fellow, appears on the international wine auctioning scene in the early/mid 2000s and becomes a big player at an impressive pace. If there’s one thing that’s universally known about the early/mid 2000s, it’s that they preceded the latter 2000s – hah, just kidding! But not really, for the decade started with the fake excess of the dot-com bubble and then flourished in the fake excess of the housing market bubble. Per chance (or not), Kurniawan’s trajectory does well to parallel these cautionary tales, only that its conclusion is brisk and there were few tears shed about the victims. As one usually does, when it comes to the rich losing out in their Bateman-esque games of self-affirmation and chest thumping.

The fascinating bit lies in the possibility of a fraud existing in a world so tightly strung by expert knowledge. A wine connoisseur has a special kind of fame attached to his or her ability to discern the exceptional from the good. It’s something acquired through years of sophisticated training and a lot of expensive wines. Additionally, as important sums of money are thrown around, it is also the kind of area ripe for pretense. Similarly to, perhaps, the market for art collectors, there will always be people who understand art, historically and aesthetically, and those who collect it for the sheer exercise, be it financial or egotistical. The same applies to wines.

It’s in this contrast that Sour Grapes comes alive. The story is told through a limited collection of archival footage of Kurniawan and present day interviews with people in the business: collectors, sommeliers, wine producers. It paints this canvas of wine as an ultimately simple and beautiful experience, pandering somewhat to Domain Ponsot’s lavishly poetic narrative. Lavish to the point of being hypocritical, even. And it also frames Kurniawan as this endearing character, much liked by those who bought his wines. There’s surprisingly little sourness to the movie, especially for so much money being involved. Yet, that also plays into this idea of the exclusive wine club, where people are so enlightened (and rich), that they can look beyond trifling deceptions worth millions.

So perhaps that’s part of what I didn’t quite like, the neatness of it all, the lack of further prodding. You also get a sense there’s a template for these meta-documentaries, where a deeply ironic situation is framed with lyrical prowess, only to sustain some unnecessary ambiguity about its central character(s). Kurniawan is guilty and a bunch of people were defrauded, even if he might have had to bear the brunt of it.

But there’s also a certain beauty to being caught in such a great deception, because the contrast is so stark. The story sells itself, so the point of the movie was to somehow capture it with the limited footage it had of its lead. Atlas and Rothwell came good and they also managed to leave any sardonic undertones as just that, undertones. Ultimately, even for someone with no taste for wine, I was excited by the end, having sat through this very particular tasting menu of intricate lies. The thought that nothing is quite black and white lingers in the knowledge that thousands of Kurniawan wine bottles are still in wine cellars around the world.

Some real, some fake – and the afterthought that one might not really want to know the truth.

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