The incredible story of Koch's Jefferson's bottle of Laffite 1787

Part five.

Text from The New Yorker, by Patrick Radden Keefe.

"Broadbent wrote letters to Monticello as well, standing by Rodenstock and the bottles. Some unbridgeable philosophical gap seemed to separate the historians in Virginia and the connoisseurs in Europe. Broadbent, like Rodenstock, expressed confidence that the sensory experience of consuming a bottle of wine trumped historical evidence. In June, 1986, he noted that he had just tasted a bottle of Rodenstock’s 1787 Th.J. Branne Mouton. The wine was “sensationally good,” Broadbent wrote. “If anyone had any lingering doubts about the authenticity of this extraordinary old wine, they were completely removed. . . . Admittedly, there is no written evidence that these particular bottles had been in the possession of Jefferson, but I am now firmly convinced that this indeed was the wine that Jefferson ordered.”
It wasn’t only the researchers at Monticello who raised doubts about the wine. Before Christie’s auctioned the bottle to Forbes, Rodenstock had offered a bottle of the Th.J. Lafitte to a German collector named Hans-Peter Frericks, for around ten thousand Deutsche marks. After Forbes spent forty times that sum, Frericks decided to auction his own bottle and approached Broadbent. But Rodenstock intervened, saying that he had sold the bottle to Frericks on the condition that Frericks not resell it. (Frericks denies that such a condition existed.) Frericks turned to Sotheby’s, but, after examining the evidence, the auction house declined, citing the bottle’s uncertain provenance.
Rodenstock’s efforts to stop the sale, along with Sotheby’s doubts about the bottle, made Frericks suspicious, and in 1991 he sent the bottle to a Munich lab to have its contents carbon-dated. All organic material contains the radioactive isotope carbon 14, which exhibits a predictable rate of decay; scientists can thus analyze the amount of the isotope in a bottle of wine in order to approximate its age. Carbon 14 has a long half-life, and carbon dating is relatively imprecise for evaluating objects that are several centuries old. But nuclear atmospheric tests in the nineteen-fifties and sixties offer a benchmark of sorts, since levels of carbon 14 rise sharply during that period. In this case, the amounts of carbon 14 and of another isotope, tritium, were much higher than one would expect for two-hundred-year-old wine, and the scientists concluded that the bottle contained a mixture of wines, nearly half of which dated to 1962 or later. Frericks sued Rodenstock, and, in December, 1992, a German court found in his favor, holding that Rodenstock “adulterated the wine or knowingly offered adulterated wine.” (Rodenstock appealed, and sued Frericks for defamation. The matter was ultimately settled out of court.)
In addition to the former MI5 agent, the indefatigable Elroy employed two private investigators in Germany, who discovered that Hardy Rodenstock was a fictitious name. The investigators visited Rodenstock’s home town, Marienwerder, in what is now Poland. They reported to Koch that Rodenstock had started out as Meinhard Goerke, the son of a local railroad official. They interviewed Rodenstock’s mother and visited his elementary school. The investigators told Koch that Rodenstock had trained as an engineer and taken a job with German Federal Railways; they could find no evidence to support his claims of being a professor. They also interviewed Tina York, a German pop singer with whom Rodenstock was romantically involved in the seventies and eighties. York told them that during her decade-long relationship with Rodenstock he hid the fact that he had two sons from an earlier marriage. “He always talked about two nephews,” she said.
Rodenstock had adopted his new identity at about the time he met York, the investigators said, and told her that he was part of the famous Rodenstock family. It was while he was with York that he first became interested in wine. She didn’t share his devotion to the hobby. She remembered placing a bowl of potato salad in his air-conditioned wine cellar one day, to keep it cool. “Rodenstock just flipped out,” she said.
Rodenstock was known for his discerning nose and his ability to identify wines in blind tastings. Elroy wondered whether he might possess the skills of a mixer, the type of expert that vineyards employ to achieve a precise blend of grapes. There are no scientific tests that can reliably determine the grape varietals in a bottle of wine, and Elroy speculated that Rodenstock might have concocted forgeries by mixing various wines—and even a dash of port, as forgers have been known to do—in order to create a cocktail that tasted like the real thing. Pursuing these suspicions, Elroy’s team of investigators asked several people they interviewed whether they had any recollection of Rodenstock’s having a laboratory where counterfeits could be made. Then, last October, a German named Andreas Klein approached Koch’s team and said that Rodenstock had lived for several years in an apartment owned by his family. The two had quarrelled over Klein’s desire to add an apartment above Rodenstock’s, and ended up in court. In 2004, after Rodenstock abandoned the apartment, Klein entered his former tenant’s cellar and discovered a collection of empty bottles and a stack of apparently new wine labels. In response to these claims, Rodenstock has initiated legal proceedings against Klein.
There are two types of wine counterfeiters: those who do not tamper with what is inside the bottle and those who do. Because the price of a great vintage of fine wine often dwarfs the price of an indifferent one, many forgers will start with a genuine bottle of, say, 1980 Pétrus and simply replace the label with one from 1982. (The ’82 vintage is especially coveted and expensive.) With a good scanner and a color printer, labels are easy to replicate—one former auctioneer I spoke with called it “desktop publishing.” The cork in the bottle is marked with the year, but forgers sometimes scratch away the last digit, assuming that the buyer won’t notice. Moreover, because corks tend to deteriorate after decades in the bottle, some vineyards offer a recorking service, so a bottle with a newer cork might not immediately arouse suspicion. In any event, the cork is generally concealed by the foil capsule until the buyer opens the bottle.
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To be continued...