Culture: A suspicious cellar gets the Hollywood treatment

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The Independent Online

Forget the summer of 2008. What will the big blockbusters of 2009 be? One candidate is a film about a cache of 30 or so bottles of wine purportedly from the cellar of Thomas Jefferson, the American president. After selling for hundreds of thousands of pounds in the 1980s, the bottles turned out to be fake and the ensuing fallout left the world of wine connoisseurs in disarray. Two film projects are in the works about this controversy, both in fast-track development.

The Jefferson bottles were "discovered" by German wine dealer Hardy Rodenstock, who claimed they had been walled up in a secret cellar in a Parisian townhouse. The first to go on sale – at Christie's in 1985 – was a 1787 Lafite engraved with the initials "Th.J". It was bought for £105,000 by Christopher Forbes, son of the billionaire publisher Malcolm Forbes, and appeared in the Guinness Book of Records as the most expensive bottle of wine ever sold.

The Lafite had been authenticated by Michael Broadbent, then the director of the Christie's wine department, but its provenance was soon questioned. Monticello, the museum housed in Jefferson's old residence, issued a report casting doubt on the idea that the president would have had any bottles engraved with his initials and pointing out that none of the wines were listed in Jefferson's meticulously detailed purchase records.

In 1998, Bill Koch, another American billionaire, purchased three bottles for £116,000 (Christie's was not involved in this sale) and, some 17 years later, decided to look into their authenticity. Employing a team that included former FBI agent Jim Elroy, he discovered that Rodenstock's real name was Meinhard Görke and that doubts had been raised over some aspects of his past behaviour – though he had an explanation for each apparent anomaly. Elroy asked the experts at Château Pétrus to examine a bottle that had originated with Rodenstock – allegedly a 1921 Pétrus that Koch paid $33,150 for – and they concluded that it was "a very impressive fake made by a master forger of wine".

More damningly, Elroy asked an ex-FBI tool-mark specialist to look at the initials engraved on the bottles. He concluded that it was very unlikely that they had been done with 18th-century engraving technology and had probably been made with a modern dentist's drill.

Koch filed a lawsuit in 2006, suing Rodenstock for $500,000; the merchant declined to contest the case, arguing he wasn't subject to the court's jurisdiction.

The whole bizarre story is told in The Billionaire's Vinegar, a book by Benjamin Wallace, which has just been published in the US and is due here in August. My money's on Jack Nicholson to play Koch.