In A Universal History of Infamy, Jorge Luis Borges tells the story of the Tichborne Claimant.
A feckless conman, Arthur Orton, impersonated a young English aristocrat, Roger Charles Tichborne, who had been lost at sea in 1854 but whose death his anguished mother refused to accept. Tichborne, Borges tells us, was a gentleman, brought up in France, slight in build, with wavy dark hair and sharp features. Orton was nothing like him. He was enormously fat, "an out-and-out boor whose features could hardly be made out". He spoke no French. The point, as Borges tells us, was that Lady Tichborne so desperately wanted her son to be alive that she would believe anything. "The mother, recognizing her prodigal son, drew him into her eager embrace."
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Those duped by the great wine forger Rudy Kurniawan – who is serving a 10-year prison sentence for fraud – seem to have been prey to the same wilful blindness, according to the documentary Sour Grapes. His deceptions were brazen to the point of absurdity (one of his specialties was faking "unicorns", mythical wines like the 1945 Domaine Ponsot Clos St Denis – Ponsot's first bottling from that vineyard was the 1982), but his victims fell so easily because they wanted to believe.
Sour Grapes is an 85-minute-long documentary about Kurniawan's colossal fraud, directed by Reuben Atlas and Jerry Rothwell. It was released in September in the UK and October in the US. It was added to the Netflix roster last month.
"The motive of the investigation is to show the elegance of the hustle," Brad Goldstein, investigator and spokesman for billionaire wine collector and Kurniawan victim Bill Koch tells the camera. It was a supremely elegant hustle, and it worked because – as someone points out – there's a collaboration between the forger and the dupe.
The question at the heart of the fascinating story of Rudy Kurniawan is not "did he do it?" but: "What, exactly, did he do?" The facts of the case are that the FBI found a faker's workshop in his flat, a workshop so comprehensive that hardened FBI men were dumbfounded. "It was everything you've ever needed to make fake wine," one said.
But Rudy couldn't have faked 15,000 bottles, which is what he is accused of, given that it takes an hour (as Laurent Ponsot helpfully calculates) to knock together a good fake, dirtying labels, distressing capsules, gluing the neck tags and so forth. "That's 15,000 hours. I mean, it's a physical impossibility that one man could do that." So who helped him? Who backed him? Where did all the money come from? Or, as Brad Goldstein said at the end of the film: "Who is this guy?" None of these questions are answered, least of all the last, in this brilliant documentary.
Everything about Rudy came up fake. Ponsot, who famously interrupted the 2008 Acker Merrall auction in New York just as his fake Clos St Denis came under the hammer, asked him where the bottles came from. Rudy gave him a name, Pak Hendra, and two phone numbers. The numbers were duds, of course, and then Ponsot realized that Pak Hendra is the most common name in Indonesia. He'd been going round asking people in the wine industry if they'd heard of a Mr Smith.
Rudy produced his mother and a brother, and told people he was living off dividends from the family business. But no records of such a business exist, and it further turns out that both Rudy Kurniawan (an assumed name) and his brother's name are those of famous Indonesian badminton players.
His slightly wonky sense of humor is wonderfully captured in the film. His party trick is to pull the cork on a priceless wine, look horrified and say: "It's corked."
"I just love doing this shit," he says amidst the hilarity of the dinner table. He holds forth – to people he's defrauding – on the dangers of online auctions. "You just can't tell the provenance." He laments drinking a wonderful bottle. "What should I do, fill it up again and put the cork back in?"
He pushed the joke to its limits. His forgeries showed breathtaking attention to detail – they are artworks in themselves – but they contained laughable mistakes. In one neck label the address of the importer Percy Fox is spelled wrong. The Ponsot Clos St Denis (verified by Acker CEO John Kapon) was pure myth. And remember – Rudy was flogging it to men who consider themselves steeped in Burgundy. Everybody went to his tastings – not just the super-rich (those with what the fraud-detective Maureen Downey memorably calls "fuck-you money"), but the world's elite wine critics as well.
Everything about this story is soaked in money. He wires $17 million home one year. He earns $35m from two sales in 2006. He wires $10m through his Amex account. The mansion in Bel-Air. The Warhols. The Damien Hirsts.
Everything about him is fake, except his palate. Those who considered themselves his friends, like the film producer Jefery Levy, and those who regularly tasted with him – the sommelier and wine producer Rajat Parr, for example – were adamant. He knew how to taste wine. "He was immensely, unbelievably correct on all the wines," Levy said. Parr said he was pretty impressive. Correctly identifying a wine blind in front of a roomful of experts is not something you can fake.
If one state of mind could be said to characterize all the individuals involved, from the FBI to the CIA, Bill Koch and dogged Goldstein to the extraordinary Downey, it would be perplexity. "I'd like to sit Rudy down and ask him: 'What was it all about?'" Ponsot says at the end. Several of the people he defrauded are still shaking their heads in disbelief. "I don't believe he did it. No way," Levy says. "He could never do that."
They're so sure that he didn't do it, yet it's quite clear that still no one knows who he is – was – where he came from, who supplied him with money. The possibility is floated that he was connected to a $780m corporate fraud in Indonesia, of which only one-tenth has been recovered, but that is never substantiated. In the end, he is a cipher.
In hindsight you can see he knew the ride couldn't last for ever. The more you watch the footage, the more you detect a glimmer of desperation in that chipmunk smile, the hearty laugh, the hail-fellow-well-met backslappings of head sommeliers and celeb collectors, the clunking hints. When the FBI came knocking, he answered the door in his dressing gown.