One of the most notorious names in fine wine is the subject of a documentary being screened in Calgary on Wednesday night.

Sour Grapes tells the story of Rudy Kurniawan, an Indonesian-born man who sold an estimated $150-million worth of fraudulent wine between 2002 and 2012 — which he produced himself in his California home.

"And all of that wine is still out there," said American wine consultant Maureen Downey, one of people who blew the lid off Kurniawan's scam and is featured in the film.

Rudy Kurniawan

It's estimated that between 2002 and 2012, Rudy Kurniawan sold $150M US of fake wine. (Dogwoof Pictures)

"What's happening is people return these fake wines to vendors for refunds, but then the vendors are reselling them as authentic wines again," she said.

Downey said she really knew something was off when Kurniawan tried to auction a 1950s Pomerol through her, but couldn't produce a receipt.

"So something wasn't right," she told the Calgary Eyeopener.

"Also, he was seeming to be able to put his hands on wines that other people who had been looking for literally decades couldn't find."

Laurent Ponsot

Laurent Ponsot, the third-generation head of French wine producer Domaine Ponsot, helped foil Rudy Kurniawan's fine wine scheme. (Dogwoof Pictures)

Grape expectations, crushed

Kurniawan's scheme really started to unravel when French wine producer Domaine Ponsot caught him selling Ponsot wines that were never made.

Downey worked closely with the FBI in the investigation that, eventually, put the con man behind bars.

Maureen Downey

Maureen Downey met Rudy Kurniawan when she was working as a wine specialist at an American auction house. (Chai Consulting)

"He studied some of the greatest forgers in the world. He baked his labels to make them look oxidized and old  — baked them in the oven," she said.

"He purchased a lot of old glass from France and he reused a lot. He made sommeliers ship back his empties. And the sommeliers were dumb enough to send them back."

Downey believes Kurniawan was able to pull off such a massive scam for so long because of support the auction house Acker Merrall & Condit, which profited from him the most.

"They paid critics to substantiate him, so you know he was basically a figment of the market that he fed."

Kurniawan is currently serving a 10-year sentence in a California prison.

  • The documentary Sour Grapes screens at 7 p.m. at Eau Claire Cinema as part of the Calgary International Film Festival's Doc Soup series.


With files from the Calgary Eyeopener