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Friday, September 07, 2007

Wine Fraud: The Case of the Cranky Collector

Among the many interesting articles in the current Food Issue of The New Yorker magazine is a story about high-level wine fraud titled The Jefferson Bottles.

Written by Patrick Radden Keefe, who has previously written articles for the magazine about smuggling antiquities and humans, the focus of the story in on a number of 18th-century wines represented as having come from the collection of Thomas Jefferson, some of which were famously sold at a Christie's auction in 1985. An American collector subsequently purchased four other Jefferson bottles for a total of about half a million dollars from two different retailers who had acquired them from the same source as those sold by Christie's, but he soon determined that they were fakes.

Wine fraud at this level is seldom ever prosecuted, largely because the victims either never discover that they've been had, drink the evidence, or choose not to say anything because they don't want people to know that they've been suckers. But in this case the aggrieved collector, an energy company owner named Bill Koch, took it personally and went after who he considered to be the perp, a prominent German wine collector who calls himself Hardy Rodenstock.

Koch put together a team of investigators consisting of a retired agents from Scotland Yard, MI5 and the FBI and international wine experts, and has so far spent more than a million dollars trying to put Rodenstock — who Koch's team discovered is really a former German Federal Railways employee named Meinhard Goerke — behind bars.

In addition to being a fascinating detective story, Keefe's article brings up some thought-provoking issues for the wine world, since many of the field's top experts — including Michael Broadbent (who was the head of Christie's wine department at the time the "Jefferson" bottles were auctioned), Robert Parker and Jancis Robinson — have learned what historic vintages of such labels as Château d’ Yquem, Château Pétrus and Château Lafite taste like at least in part by sampling bottles provided by Rodenstock. Parker awarded one such bottle, a magnum of 1921 Pétrus, a 100-point score at a tasting hosted by Rodenstock in Munich in 1995. Upon hearing that it was almost certainly a fake (Pétrus’ cellarmaster said he didn't think any magnums of that vintage were bottled at the vineyard), Parker said "If that bottle was a fake, he [Rodenstock] should be a mixer. It was wonderful."

But if Rodenstock were a mixer for even the most prestigious château, he'd never be able to approach his current estimated income: A million dollars a year, for selling 10 bottles of wine a month.

Keefe tells the story in great detail. It can be read online for free, but I recommend plunking down $5 for the whole analog issue. It makes flipping back and forth much easier — and as a bonus you can read some great cartoons.
M. Zane Grey, 8:28 AM