Most people would scoff at the notion of paying even $50 for a bottle of wine, so the allegorical potential of a story about fake $10,000 bottles seemed unlimited. In a digital age when ideas about authenticity are constantly shifting, we both wanted to explore the value clashes between culture, artistry, and extreme wealth, where refinements of taste seemed to mirror wider social contradictions. 

With little knowledge about “the juice” as Laurent Ponsot calls it, and even less about the wine world, Rudy’s con initially confirmed all of our suspicions about the posturing of high end wine drinkers. We thought the story held a middle finger up to the sommelier with the thingy around his neck telling you why the wine you ordered was wrong.

Our judgments softened at Rudy’s trial, where we witnessed a cast of unique characters take the stand for whom wine offered a multifaceted expression of human creativity. After visiting the Ponsot vineyards in France, we came to admire the art of the vigneron, rooted in the complex soils of Burgundy. We met down-to-earth sommeliers and collectors with a genuine, unpretentious passion. The notion that fermented grape juice could be the ultimate art, that bottles aged for decades could be history consumed, right along with the artists’ love, became more palatable.

And then there was Rudy — part Catch Me If You Can, part Gatsby, part Beltracchi — who, for many of those involved with him, seemed to embody everything that might be wonderful about the rarest French Grand Cru.  The deeper we delved into his story and background the more mysterious it became. The trail took us into a shady world of stolen bank assets, private investigators and fake identities – and to questions that might be unanswerable about the origins and reach of his activities.

Like all the best fables, Rudy’s story is ambiguous. Should we celebrate his ingenious fakes, which undermine the clichéd pretensions wine embodies?  Or is his artful con symptomatic of a fraudulent culture – an Emperor’s New Clothes unfolding at the time that our entire financial system was standing naked?

Jerry Rothwell & Reuben Atlas 2016