Drink: Mystery in a bottle

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Indy Lifestyle Online

The longest-running saga in the annals of wine scandals is set to reach its finale in a US federal district court. Judge Jones is about to pronounce on a claim by Bill Koch, an American tycoon, that he was duped into buying fake bottles of wine that Hardy Rodenstock, a German wine collector, claims were once owned by Thomas Jefferson, the third president of the United States. If the verdict vindicates Koch, it will call into question Christie's methods of authentication and leave some of the wine world's most experienced palates – seduced by Rodenstock's lavish tastings and dinners – with a very bad taste in the mouth.

It will also raise questions about a growing problem: the illicit trade in wine forgeries. The latest spate of fakes has come at a time of increasing global wealth and the demand by the new wealthy to own and consume only the finest things in life, wine included. Auction prices for top wines have risen sharply this year. The 1996 vintage of Château Lafite, for instance, has been selling at £7,000 per case this year, up from £4,200 six months ago and less than £2,000 a couple of years ago. However, in the face of the illicit trade in fine wine, counterfeiters are coming up against increasingly sophisticated anti-fraud measures such as secure inks, markers, label codes and laser-etching on bottles. Twenty-five armed military police, trained as undercover sommeliers by the Italian government, have recently been involved in uncovering a brunello and barbaresco scam in Germany and Denmark.

Not that such anti-fraud measures or tactics were available in 1985, when the latest twist in the Jefferson saga began. It was then that Hardy Rodenstock sold a 1787 Château Lafite, engraved with the initials Th.J, to the American media magnate Malcolm Forbes for £105,000. This was a record auction price for a single bottle that still holds good. Rodenstock claimed that the Lafite – along with a cache of more than a dozen bottles belonging to Jefferson – was found in a Parisian cellar, bricked up during the war to escape the attention of the Nazis. His refusal to reveal the source of his supply raised suspicions but following authentication by Christie's Michael Broadbent MW, the Lafite made history.

In 1988, Bill Koch paid two wine merchants some $500,000 for four "Jefferson" clarets, but he became suspicious after the Jefferson Memorial Foundation in Virginia couldn't confirm the wine's provenance. America's third president adored fine claret and his journal of 1787 records his tour of Bordeaux's top estates, whose wines he served on his return to America. When his meticulous records failed to disclose the Rodenstock bottles, Koch established a team of experts to investigate. According to a Wall Street Journal report, a former FBI glass forensics specialist found that the "initials on the bottles were [made] using a modern high-speed diamond drill". Rodenstock counterclaimed that his own experts showed the bottle was from around 1800, although he still refused to give details about his source of supply.

According to Koch's spokesman, Brad Goldstein, "We have examined seven bottles that originated from Hardy. We know all seven are fake. Those seven include the bottle owned by Mr Forbes and two donated by Hardy to Château d'Yquem. The sad thing is that Herr Goerke's [Rodenstock's former name, as disclosed by Koch] scheme is not just limited to the Jefferson bottles. We have found other bottles ... that were concocted in Hardy's laboratory. It's game, set and damn near close to match."

It's a shame I'm not a film director, because if I were, I would be hiring a scriptwriter right now for an action-packed caper full of mystery, celebrity, skulduggery and greed.

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