Sour Grapes Documentary

Here’s another Netflix documentary that is fascinating.  It’s a heartwarming story of an immigrant kid (Rudy Karniawan) coming to the US and making a name for himself in the wine industry.

With the wine industry commoditized as it is, old wine vintages are certainly disappearing by being opened and drunk or forever stored away in a vault somewhere.  Nonetheless, wines are increasingly being viewed not only as investment opportunities for investors but also as a much larger mutual funds investment.  This means there’s money to be made for vintage wines and even more for the rare hard to find ones.

The documentary details Rudy’s sudden appearance in the elite wine tasting circles and his fake wine operation.  At the heart of the operation is Rudy’s ability to recreate the taste of vintage French wines from a blend of new wines blended with old commercial “table” wines.  Similarly to today’s wine operations, some vineyards harvest more grapes and/or wine that end up being sold to 3rd party winemakers who will blend and relabel the wine.  As the documentary suggests, only the most trained wine connoisseur should be able to detect the differences between a real vintage and a “reconditioned” vintage.  But to many oenophiles, they might not be able to taste subtle differences between a real and reconditioned.  To add more authenticity to the reconditioned wine, Rudy’s operation also involved the authentic creation of labels, corks, wax guards and even aging of the wine bottle exterior to mimic what a real aged bottle could potentially look like.  And with the wine market as lucrative as it is, Rudy also started selling these reconditioned wine to other collectors.  Since winemakers in the 1920s to 1950s did not adequately take notes or had inventory lost to the world wars, the authenticity of the wine sometimes were never questioned.  This lead to investors and collectors to assume authenticity and subsequently bid up the wines.  Rudy’s operation eventually started to unravel when a French winemaker started to investigate why a particular vintage was being auctioned when in fact that vintage was never made until years later.

Watching this documentary reminds me of a Hidden Brain podcast about art forgeries.  The way Rudy approached wine is very similar to how the subject of the podcast committed his forgeries too.  However, after watching the documentary, I can’t help but wonder if a similar operation is currently running in Asia.  With China’s rising wine consumption and their potential desire to also obtain rare vintages, a black market supplying reconditioned wines is potentially lucrative in China.  Could Rudy’s operation help establish a Chinese operation for his relatives?

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