American buyer seeks £15m in damages over ‘fake’ vintage wine
US property developer claims several bottles bought from British dealership are counterfeit
Cahal Milmo is the chief reporter of The Independent and has been with the paper since 2000. He was born in London and previously worked at the Press Association news agency. He has reported on assignment at home and abroad, including Rwanda, Sudan and Burkina Faso, the phone hacking scandal and the London Olympics. In his spare time he is a keen runner and cyclist, and keeps an allotment.
Wednesday 23 April 2014
When an American property developer, Julian LeCraw Junior, paid £55,000 for the world’s most expensive white wine, the British seller underlined its appreciation by flying the 219-year-old bottle of Château d’Yquem across the Atlantic by private jet.
Eight years on, relations between Mr LeCraw and the London-based Antique Wine Company (AWC) are somewhat less cordial after the Atlanta-based millionaire alleged that the wine – and several other bottles bought from the same dealership – are fake. A lawsuit filed by Mr LeCraw seeking recompense of up to $25m (£15m) claims that AWC sold him 15 counterfeit bottles of wine bearing such sought-after names as Yquem, Lafite Rothschild and Margaux. In legal documents obtained by The Independent, Mr LeCraw claims expert analysis has unveiled tell-tale clues, including computer-printed wine labels purporting to be centuries’ old, which confirm he has paid huge sums for “worthless glass containing unknown liquids”. AWC and its founder and chief executive, Stephen Williams, have strongly denied their former client’s claims and said they have provided evidence to prove the authenticity of the wines. The company said it will “vigorously defend” the case.
The dispute is the latest to erupt in the rarefied world of trophy wines which has been hit repeatedly by claims of fakery and fraud. Last year, Florida billionaire Bill Koch won $25m, later reduced to $900,000, in damages for 24 bottles of centuries’ old wine which turned out to be fake.
Château d’Yquem, most famous of the Sauternes dessert wines fashioned in Bordeaux from grapes shrivelled by a benign fungus, is in the pantheon of great French vineyards. In its sales material, AWC made much of the extraordinary history of the 1787 bottle which, it said, had been recorked three times at Château d’Yquem between 1953 and 1994.
A representative from the Antique Wine Company holds up a bottle of Château d’Yquem (PA)
The eventual purchase price of about $100,000 was hailed as the highest ever paid for a white wine. When Mr Williams delivered it in person by private jet in February 2006, he said: “It might be the most expensive and pampered travelling companion I have ever had, but at £10,000 a glass, I have to be sure that our client is left with a sweet taste in his mouth.”
That taste turned sour for Mr LeCraw last year when he commissioned an American wine expert who declared two bottles of Yquem, 12 of Château Lafite Rothschild and a six-litre bottle of 1908 Château Margaux from his collection were counterfeit.
The report found evidence of alleged fakery which included computer-printed labels and incorrect corks and bottle shapes. The absence of authenticity was then confirmed by experts at Château d’Yquem and Château Lafite Rothschild. The head of wine at the latter vineyard declared each of the bottles to be “faux, faux, faux”, according to Mr LeCraw’s complaint.
AWC, which supplied 70-year-old wines to mark the 70th birthday of George H W Bush and also a consignment of 1912 wines used by Paramount Pictures to celebrate the Oscar success of the James Cameron movie Titanic, said it “strongly denies” all allegations made against it by Mr LeCraw, adding that it has supplied hundreds of bottles of wine to clients across the world with proof of authenticity from producers.
In a statement, Mr Williams said: “The proceedings brought against the Antique Wine Company will be vigorously defended.”
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