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

Part 8.

Text from The New Yorker, by Patrick Radden Keefe.


"In April, Koch wrote to Rodenstock again, asking whether the two could meet, “over a good glass of wine, at a place of your choosing,” to discuss some of his concerns about the bottles. Rodenstock declined. “From a legal point of view the purchase and the sale are barred by the statute of limitations,” he wrote. The person who sold him the bottles in 1985 was in his sixties at the time, he continued, and might no longer be alive. Questions about the bottles’ authenticity were “grist for the mill of the yellow press.” When the suit was filed, Rodenstock moved to dismiss it.
Koch’s lawyers flew to London in October to interview Michael Broadbent, who was by then seventy-nine years old but still active on the international wine circuit. Broadbent said he had asked Rodenstock “over and over again” to divulge the address where the bottles were found. But he continued to maintain that the Jefferson bottles were real.
In a way, Broadbent had little choice. He had based hundreds of tasting notes in his books and auction catalogues on wines supplied by Hardy Rodenstock. The notion that twentieth-century connoisseurs could testify to what an eighteenth-century wine tastes like depended on the integrity of Rodenstock, one of the primary suppliers of those wines. If Rodenstock was exposed as a fraud, the credibility of Broadbent, who had repeatedly certified Rodenstock’s findings, would suffer a considerable blow. When asked why he had not done more research into the Th.J. Lafitte before the auction, he replied, “We are auctioneers; we are like journalists on deadlines. I did not have the time.” The lawyers asked whether Christie’s had prepared any written evidence back in 1985 to buttress the wine department’s claims about the bottles. Broadbent responded that it never occurred to him to put anything in writing. “With Christie’s we are all perfect gentlemen,” he said.
Last fall, Richard Brierley, the head of Christie’s wine sales in the United States, told John Wilke, at the Wall Street Journal, that while he wasn’t involved in the 1985 authentication of the Jefferson bottles, “looking back, more questions could have been asked.” (Christie’s contends that Brierley was quoted out of context.) Hugo Morley-Fletcher, who, in 1985, was the head of Christie’s ceramics department and was one of the glass experts Broadbent consulted about the authenticity of the Forbes bottle, told me, “My opinion at that time, within my experience, was that it was correct. . . . The trouble is we are engaged in an activity which is not a precise science.” He explained that he had judged that the bottle dated to the eighteenth century, and that the engraving dated to the same period. When I asked whether there was any possibility that he could have been mistaken about the engraving, he replied, “Of course,” and added, “One has to come up with an opinion. It is possible that one was conned.” Despite numerous attempts, I was unable to reach Michael Broadbent, but a Christie’s spokesman told me that “Mr. Broadbent’s decision to go forward with the sale represented his considered opinion based on all of the facts available to him at that time—a decision that we would not speculate upon twenty-two years later.”
Still, Christie’s fine-and-rare-wine auction in New York in December, 2006, featured a 1934 Pétrus accompanied by a description, taken from Broadbent’s book, of a 1934 Pétrus imperial that he had tasted years earlier. “Where Hardy Rodenstock finds these wines I know not,” it read. “There are simply no records of production, of stock or sales prior to 1945. All I can say is that the big bottle was delicious.” Koch did not know whether Rodenstock had consigned the bottle (Christie’s told me he had not). But he was angry that even in the face of the allegations in his suit the auction house would promote wine with Broadbent notes on Rodenstock bottles. He telephoned the auction house to complain, but Christie’s proceeded with the auction. The wine was offered at twenty-two hundred dollars. It went unsold.
No one knows how many bottles of wine—real or fake—Hardy Rodenstock has sold over the years. His deals were often in cash. (“If you pay in cash, then people don’t have to declare the sale for tax purposes,” he once told an interviewer. “Two hundred thousand dollars in cash can sometimes be better than a million-dollar check.”) Protective of both his suppliers and his buyers, he did not volunteer information about particular sales. Jim Elroy thinks that, at ten thousand dollars a bottle or more, Rodenstock could have sold ten bottles a month and made more than a million dollars a year. As Koch was launching his suit against Rodenstock, a Massachusetts software entrepreneur named Russell Frye filed a lawsuit against the Wine Library, a distributor in Petaluma, California, alleging that it had sold him nineteenth-century Lafite and Yquem, along with dozens of other rare old wines, that were counterfeit. Frye’s complaint notes that one of the defendants in the case “has recently informed plaintiff that many of the bottles that plaintiff alleges are counterfeit or questionable were ultimately obtained from Hardy Rodenstock.”
Koch owns some forty thousand bottles of wine, stored in three cellars. In May, I visited one, a refrigerated warren of dark-wood racks underneath his house in Osterville, on Cape Cod. Jim Elroy had sought the help of two experts, David Molyneux-Berry and Bill Edgerton, to go through the cellar and identify suspicious bottles.
Molyneux-Berry worked at Sotheby’s for years before becoming a private wine consultant, and it was he who rejected Hans-Peter Frericks’s bottle of Th.J. Lafitte. In Frericks’s cellar, he had identified one obvious fake after another. According to the collector’s detailed records, they had all come from Hardy Rodenstock. Molyneux-Berry was also suspicious of Rodenstock’s many colorful discoveries. As a representative of Sotheby’s, Molyneux-Berry had made frequent official trips to Russia. “I went to Kiev and saw the cellar there,” he told me. “I went to Moldova and saw the cellars there. I had the highest introductions you can get. Yet Rodenstock goes to Russia and finds the tsar’s cellars somewhere else. And it’s the entire first growth of Bordeaux. . . . And he found magnums. In volume.”
From a sample of three thousand bottles of pre-1961 vintages of often counterfeited brands, Molyneux-Berry and Edgerton identified about a hundred and thirty suspicious or obviously fake bottles in Koch’s collection. “You get to know what bottles look like,” Molyneux-Berry told me. “Obvious fakes stand out like a sore thumb.” They put a white sticker on each suspicious bottle. The next day, a professional photographer took high-resolution pictures, which, if necessary, could be introduced in court.
In some cases, the bottle, the label, and the capsule all appeared genuine, but the rarity of the wine alone was ground for suspicion. Koch owns two magnums of Lafleur from 1947, for instance. “Forty-seven is the great Lafleur,” Molyneux-Berry said. But, he continued, he has heard that in 1947 the vineyard bottled only five magnums. “What’s the chance of him having two out of five?” he asked. Edgerton maintains an online database that tracks auction sales and prices. Nineteen magnums of ’47 Lafleur have sold at auction since 1998.
Serena Sutcliffe, of Sotheby’s, told me that most wealthy collectors would rather not know about the fakes, or, if they do know, would rather not make it public. She said that on a number of occasions she has inspected a cellar that a collector was interested in auctioning and rejected it, in whole or in part, because of the preponderance of fakes, only to learn that the collector sold the phony wine through one of her competitors. The collectors “don’t want to take the hit,” she said.
“The case is much bigger” than Rodenstock, Koch told me. “When I get finished going through all the wine in my collection, I’m going after all the people who sold it to me,” he said. “The retailers, they know they’re doing it. They’re complicit.”
One of Koch’s problem bottles is a magnum of 1921 Pétrus that he bought for thirty-three thousand dollars at an auction organized by the New York wine retailer Zachys, in 2005. Koch believes that the wine originated from Rodenstock; he mentions the bottle in his lawsuit. (Zachys says it has no evidence to indicate whether the wine originally came from Rodenstock.) It was another magnum of 1921 Pétrus that Robert Parker had awarded a hundred points and pronounced “out of this universe” at Rodenstock’s Munich event in 1995.
Last spring, Jim Elroy took Koch’s magnum to Bordeaux to have it inspected at the winery. The Pétrus staff ultimately concluded that the cork was the wrong length, and that the cap and the label appeared to have been artificially aged. Pétrus confirmed that they had doubts about the authenticity of the bottle. And the cellar master, in his interview with Elroy, said that he had never heard of a magnum of 1921 Pétrus and did not believe that any were bottled at the vineyard.
This raised an interesting question. If Pétrus made no magnums in 1921, what was Parker drinking at the Rodenstock event? Parker’s nose is insured for a million dollars; it seems almost pathological that Rodenstock would invite such a man to his table and serve him a fake. Elroy sees this as further proof of Rodenstock’s guilt, maintaining that this kind of risktaking is not unusual in a counterfeiter. “I know a lot about fraudsters,” he said. “I put a lot of them in prison. They feel, I’m so smart. I’m smarter than anyone in the world. Rodenstock feels that way.”
If indeed Parker’s hundred-point 1921 Pétrus was a fake, such hubris might not be misplaced. Could Rodenstock have become so proficient at making fake wine that his fakes tasted as good as, or even better than, the real thing? When I asked Parker about the bottle, he hastened to say that even the best wine critics are fallible. Yet he reiterated that the bottle was spectacular. “If that was a fake, he should be a mixer,” Parker said. “It was wonderful.”
Early this summer, Hardy Rodenstock fired the Manhattan lawyers he had engaged to contest Koch’s suit. In a letter to the trial judge, he objected that the court had no jurisdiction over him, as a German citizen; that Koch had bought the bottles not directly from him but from third parties; and that the case should be barred by the statute of limitations. It might be Koch’s “hobby to take actions against people for years,” he suggested, but he wanted no part of “such ‘silly games.’ ” After spelling out his objections, he announced, “I get out of the procedure.”
Rodenstock would not agree to be interviewed for this piece, but in a series of faxes, most of them in German, he maintained his innocence and fiercely objected to Bill Koch’s portrayal of him, denouncing Koch’s “concoctions and shenanigans.” He acknowledged that his legal name is Meinhard Goerke, but insisted that many people change their names, pointing to Larry King as an example. Rodenstock denied telling Tina York that he was a member of the Rodenstock family, and maintained that he was indeed a professor, writing, “That is a fact! Verifiable!” He disputed accounts that he found a hundred cases of Bordeaux in Venezuela, observing, “That would be 1200 bottles?!?!?!” As for Andreas Klein’s allegations about finding empty bottles and labels in his basement, Rodenstock wrote that it was not uncommon for wine connoisseurs to save empties after a wine tasting. “I take the labels from old bottles to have them framed,” he said. “This looks very nice!” He denied supplying any bottles to the Wine Library, or the magnum of Pétrus that Koch mentioned in the lawsuit, and insisted, “My 1921 Pétrus bottles were always absolutely genuine!!!” He cited Parker’s hundred-point review, and asked, “Is there any better proof that the wine was genuine when world-renowned experts described it as superb and gave it the highest possible grade?”
Rodenstock took particular exception to Bill Koch’s account of their one meeting, in 2000, at Christie’s Latour tasting. “I was not late!!” he insisted. “I neither looked uncomfortable nor did I run away from him fast. My facial expression was, I am sure, full of pleasant anticipation of the wonderful Latour tasting. I was in a very good mood!!!” In Rodenstock’s recollection, Koch said that he owned some Jefferson bottles, and Rodenstock replied, “Good for you, but you didn’t get them from me.”
When it comes to the authenticity of the Th.J. bottles, Rodenstock offers a number of sometimes contradictory defenses. “If Christie’s had the slightest doubt about the authenticity, they would not have accepted the bottle of 1787 Lafitte,” he wrote. “I am therefore beyond reproach!” He suggested that Koch’s analysis of the initials was performed not by scientists but by “amateur engravers” who were friends of Koch, and were being paid for their conclusions. But in his letter to the court he entertained the possibility that the initials were modern, hypothesizing that whoever originally sold him the wines “had some bottles re-engraved over the old engravings . . . because they were no longer clearly legible.” He has also suggested that Koch himself or one of his staff may have had the bottles reëngraved, and added, “A great deal can have happened to the bottles in twenty years!!!” (When Hans-Peter Frericks sued over his Jefferson bottle, Rodenstock made a similar claim, suggesting that Frericks had tampered with his own bottle in order to frame Rodenstock.)
On August 14th, the magistrate judge, who has supervised pretrial procedural issues, recommended that the court enter a default judgment against Rodenstock, because of his refusal to participate. The trial judge must now decide whether or not to accept Rodenstock’s various procedural defenses. But even if he is handed a default judgment Rodenstock insists that German courts will not enforce it.
Meanwhile, Jim Elroy has turned over the findings of his investigation to the authorities, a grand jury has been convened to hear evidence, and the F.B.I. has begun issuing subpoenas to wine collectors, dealers, and auction houses. “It’s going to have a salutary effect on the whole industry,” Koch told me. “And if the judge throws the lawsuit out for some technical reason I’ve got five others I could bring.”
In the back of his Palm Beach wine cellar, past rows of priceless bottles, behind elegant cast-iron grillework, is a closet in which Koch keeps his very oldest bottles, many of which he now believes are fake. I picked up a bottle of the 1787 Th.J. Lafitte. It was cold and surprisingly heavy in my hands, and I ran my fingers over the letters. Could a shared passion for the rarest old wines have blinded everyone—the collectors, the critics, the auctioneers—to the sheer improbability of those initials? Jefferson had asked in the 1790 letter that his wine and Washington’s wine be marked, but surely he was referring to the cases and not the individual bottles.
Koch uncorked a bottle of 1989 Montrachet, and we walked upstairs and settled into comfortable leather chairs in the cowboy room. The wine was crisp and minerally; to my untutored palate, it tasted pretty good. As we discussed the case, I noticed that Koch seemed anything but aggrieved. He has thrown himself into his battle against Rodenstock and phony wine with the same headlong enthusiasm that he devoted to collecting wine. “I used to brag that I got the Thomas Jefferson wines,” he said. “Now I get to brag that I have the fake Thomas Jefferson wines.”
Outside, the sun was beginning to set, and Koch’s chef informed him that dinner would be softshell crab and venison. Koch flipped through his cellar book, a hefty binder listing his wines. Upstairs, one of the children was bouncing a basketball. Bridget Rooney walked in, with the couple’s one-year-old daughter, Kaitlin, in her arms. “We’re talking fake wine,” Koch said. “Want to join us?”
Rooney took a seat next to him. She wore a rope of enormous pearls around her neck, and didn’t seem to notice that Kaitlin was chewing on them. She reached for Koch’s glass and took a sip.
“Mmm,” she murmured. “That’s not fake.” "


The end.