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A vintage mess: How Hardy Rodenstock became the most notorious name in wine

Hardy Rodenstock was a wine dealer of international renown. Now he stands accused of having forged the most famous bottles ever sold, and the genteel world of rare wine is still trying to pick up the pieces

Driving down from Munich in February 2006, I passed through the Bavarian Alps to Kitzbühel, the Austrian ski village popular with the German-speaking jet set. I was hoping to meet Hardy Rodenstock, who would shortly make headlines as the alleged mastermind of the biggest con in modern wine history. Rodenstock, who keeps an apartment in Kitzbühel with his wife Helga, was renowned among friends and acquaintances for his devotion to the fax machine, and in the course of researching a book about a famous collection of wines he had "discovered", I had traded several faxes with him. But whenever I suggested we meet in person, Rodenstock demurred. Finally, I decided to just show up where he lived, in the hope that this might yield a face-to-face encounter. When I arrived that afternoon, Kitzbühel was draped in fresh snow, and after checking into my hotel, I sent Rodenstock a request for a rendezvous – by fax, of course – and sat back to await his response.

Today, Hardy Rodenstock has the most notorious name in wine. In the past two years, because of a lawsuit filed by a disgruntled customer, the world has learnt that Rodenstock stands accused of having forged the most famous bottles of wine ever sold: a set of putatively 18th-century Bordeaux supposed to have belonged to Thomas Jefferson, author of America's Declaration of Independence and the country's fourth president. The circumstantial evidence against Rodenstock is powerful, and has had the effect of roundly discrediting him with the wine establishment. But for many years, he occupied a privileged and central place among that same group of people. The wine-world dignitaries drawn into his orbit have encompassed many of the mightiest names in the field, from Christie's auctioneer Michael Broadbent to wine writer Jancis Robinson to American critic Robert Parker to Austrian crystal tycoon George Riedel to Château d'Yquem manager Alexandre de Lur-Saluces.

The story of how Rodenstock duped the wine establishment begins with his own self-reinvention. Before Hardy Rodenstock was Hardy Rodenstock, he was Meinhard Goerke, a high-school graduate and apprentice labourer with the German railway whose tastes ran to beer and schnapps. After Goerke segued into managing pop bands – specialising in an insipid 1970s genre known as Schlager – he followed the lead of many of his clients and took a stage name. Hardy was the name of a popular German actor named Hardy Krüger. The Rodenstocks were a wealthy family in the optics business.

This first metamorphosis led to a second. While living with a singer called Tina York in the mid-1970s, Rodenstock ' developed an interest in wine which grew into an obsession. Starting in 1980, he hosted an annual, invite-only, over-the-top tasting; each year it grew more elaborate, with older and rarer wines, and a more and more impressive guest list. Rodenstock increasingly demonstrated an uncanny knack for sourcing esoteric rarities on which no one else was able to get his hands. "For ancient wines," the English wine journalist Edmund Penning-Rowsell once wrote, "[Rodenstock] appears to have similar powers of discovery to water diviners, in their more pedestrian calling."

The most famous and consequential of these discoveries came in 1985, when Rodenstock told friends of a recent find in Paris. Apparently, workers in an old house in the city's Marais district had broken through a brick wall in the basement and happened upon a hidden cache of wine. It included 18th-century bottles from some of the finest châteaux in France. Remarkably, they were engraved with the initials of Jefferson. He had lived in Paris from 1784 to 1789 and had been a true connoisseur; these bottles appeared to have come from his cellar. In short order, Christie's auctioned off one of them – a 1787 Château Lafite – to the Forbes family for $156,000, five times the previous record for a bottle of wine. CBS News called it "the most famous bottle of wine in the world".

The sale changed Rodenstock's life. The attendant publicity enabled him to launch a lucrative career as a wine dealer. His tastings now became more lavish and attracted even more of the wine world's luminaries. His discoveries of outlandish rarities became more frequent. He himself became a wine celebrity, and he leveraged this fame into a brand which stood for connoisseurship. He partnered with George Riedel to develop a series of Rodenstock glasses, and he also put his name to a line of cigars. In the inevitable interviews prompted by his new fame, Rodenstock peddled a fancy biography, including an illustrious and entirely fictional academic pedigree. He called himself "a battle drinker" and said that when he tasted a great wine it was like "all hell is breaking loose on my palate".

Privately, Rodenstock was a cipher. He was clearly knowledgeable and passionate about wine. But beyond the realm of bottles and corks, people in wine circles knew very little about him. None of his wine friends knew, for instance, that he had a brother or children or an ex-wife or had changed his name. Though from the beginning Rodenstock was dogged by suspicions, he was practised at deflecting them. He always had a plausible enough explanation for why he couldn't reveal more about the origins of his bottles: he didn't want to give away trade secrets to his competitors; his source was a tax dodger who wanted to stay below the authorities' radar; certain bottles had been smuggled out of Russia. Collectively, the explanations added up to a whole lot of mysteriousness. "If you look in his eyes," recalled David Molyneux-Berry, the former head of wine auctions at Sotheby's who would ultimately join forces with the collector suing Rodenstock, "you see there's something cruel about him. They say, 'You don't know that I'm tricking you.' He's having a massive laugh at the wine world."

And when it came to the Jefferson bottles, Rodenstock was all bob-and-weave. After Jefferson scholars made persuasive arguments that the bottles in the cache could not have belonged to Jefferson, Rodenstock went into full bluster mode, about how the scholars didn't know anything about wine (as if wine expertise were necessary or even relevant to a historical attribution). When a German friend, who had privately bought two Jefferson bottles from Rodenstock, became suspicious and had one of them subjected to laboratory testing, Rodenstock went on the offensive. After the test showed that the bottle contained wine dating to 1963, Rodenstock claimed that if the bottle had been tampered with, the friend must have done it in order to make Rodenstock look bad. He then turned around and had a different Jefferson bottle tested. All the new test showed was that the wine came from before 1950 – hardly the same as showing that it dated to the 1780s – but Rodenstock noisily proclaimed victory. "Churchill always said that it is important who wins the last battle," Rodenstock bragged. "As the experts have accepted, the wine can only be authentic." His friends in the wine press went along with this "vindication", failing to scrutinise the test results; they also, amazingly, failed to report that in the middle of the legal tussle with the friend, a Munich court expressly determined that Rodenstock had "adulterated or knowingly sold adulterated wine". As Heinz-Gert Woschek, the editor of a German wine magazine, said many years later, "Hardy Rodenstock is a friend of mine. It was very delicate for me to write objectively."

Rodenstock raised more eyebrows through his behaviour at his tastings. Attempts by guests to inspect corks would be rebuffed. Rodenstock would regularly take the rarest empty bottles away with him after the events, forestalling closer scrutiny of them. But for all the warning signs, Rodenstock's largesse – everything at his tastings was comped – proved too great for some to resist, and when he threw his grandest event ever, in 1998 (a week-long bacchanal featuring 125 vintages of Château d'Yquem, including two Jefferson bottles), he was still able to count among his guests such A-listers as Broadbent, Riedel and Robinson. In a subsequent write-up of the tasting, Robinson, while referring in passing to the "controversy" around the Jefferson bottles, said that the two opened at this event were "convincingly old" and, speaking of the tasting as a whole, that "it is crazy, really, to be chewing over the relative merits of such extraordinary relics".

After that, the old rare-wine scene centered around such people as Rodenstock and Broadbent began to disperse. Broadbent was no longer as actively involved in Christie's. Rodenstock stopped hosting his annual tasting. Some of the biggest collectors moved on with their lives. The mystery surrounding the Jefferson bottles might have fizzled away, save for a ticking time bomb – or rather four of them – in the cellar of an American billionaire named Bill Koch.

In the late 1980s, Koch had bought four Jefferson bottles, all filtered by Rodenstock through a London intermediary, Farr Vintners. If Koch were anyone other than Koch, that might have been that. But Koch was a singular specimen of litigious humanity. An heir to a Kansas oil-refining fortune, he spent decades in court against his brothers over the inheritance. "I don't like lawsuits," Koch told me, somewhat unconvincingly, "but they can be a good tool." He also didn't mind spending huge sums of money when he was on a mission. In 1992, he won the America's Cup after pouring $68m into the effort (among other things, he hired armies of scientists to develop new sail materials and a more hydrodynamic keel). He also amassed a wine cellar with tens of thousands of bottles. In 2005, when the Boston Museum of Fine Arts offered to put on a show called Things I Love: The Collections of William I Koch, Koch realised he couldn't offer the museum much paperwork on the bottles. And when his initial queries to Rodenstock didn't yield satisfactory answers, he launched a full-scale investigation.

Koch's team of sleuths, who were led by a former FBI agent and included a retired Scotland Yard detective, fanned out across America and Europe. Eventually, Koch would spend more than $1m on the investigation. He would shine a light into Rodenstock's murky past, finding a Munich landlord of Rodenstock's who, after Rodenstock vacated his premises, had discovered what appeared to be a counterfeiting laboratory in the two-room basement. "We were absolutely sure that he prepared the bottles in the smaller room," Andreas Klein, the landlord, recalled in an email, "and made them older in the bigger room. It was too obvious." In the autumn of 2006, Koch filed a lawsuit against Rodenstock in New York City. It looked as if the German wine dealer had finally met his match.

Publicly, Rodenstock was dismissive. "The oak tree is not concerned with a pig who is scratching its back against the roots," he told a German tabloid. Koch's resources dwarfed his, and the evidence seemed damning. Among other things, Koch's experts, after examining the engravings, concluded that they could only have been made with a modern power tool, such as a dental drill, which obviously didn't exist when Jefferson was alive. But Rodenstock blithely maintained that Koch had no jurisdiction over him, and the New York court agreed with him. Since then, Koch has refiled his suit, making additional legal arguments and, just last month, the judge re-opened the case.

Even if the mystery of the Jefferson bottles has mostly been exploded, the mystery of Rodenstock persists. Since my book, The Billionaire's Vinegar, was published in May, Rodenstock has declared to one reporter that it is a "a fairy tale", but also admitted he hadn't read it. When I made my pilgrimage to Kitzbühel, Rodenstock didn't respond to the fax I sent from my hotel. That evening, as I walked along the main street behind his apartment building, I glanced up at the third floor, not expecting to see anything. But framed in the window was a man, sitting at a desk and staring out at the snow-cloaked Alpine village. The lights were off in the room behind him, and it took a few seconds for Rodenstock's face to resolve into focus, a spectral presence in the gloom.

'The Billionaire's Vinegar: The Mystery of the World's Most Expensive Bottle of Wine', is published by Crown, at £14.99