A legal battle that threatens to shake up the discreet, tasteful international trade in fine wines is expected to spread to London after a ruinously expensive legal contest in the US. When billionaire William Koch, who is based in America, suspected fakes among his 35,000-bottle collection of fine wines, he uncorked a series of law suits in an attempt to stamp out the growing problem of counterfeit wine – as well as to get his money back.
The case centres on several 18th-century first-growth Bordeaux, allegedly once owned by US president Thomas Jefferson. A similar bottle to the wines at the centre of the dispute sold for a world record £105,000 to US publisher Malcolm Forbes at Christie's in London in 1985.
Koch bought a further four bottles in 1988, for about £250,000, from the Chicago Wine Company and London dealers Farr Vintners. Both houses later reported that "all four bottles originally came from the person who had supplied the bottle auctioned at Christie's" – which New York court papers revealed as German fine-wine collector Hardy Rodenstock.
Concerned about the value of his investment, Koch hired a team that included the ex-Scotland Yard detective inspector Richard Marston and David Molyneux-Berry, the former head of wine at Sotheby's. He was also reported to have recruited a former MI5 agent and a nuclear physicist. The physicist was employed to examine the molecular content of the glass. Koch's team believes the engraving of the initials on the bottle was fake, made with a modern, high-speed diamond drill.
These scientific checks cast doubt over the authenticity of the bottles and Koch took legal action, but last month a US judge threw the case out, saying they had no jurisdiction. Koch's lawyers say the billionaire will refile a stronger case in New York and continue to pursue separate actions in other jurisdictions, including London.
Rodenstock, who denies any wrongdoing, says the wines came from a cache of more than a dozen bottles engraved "Th.J.", found in a walled-up cellar in Paris, where Jefferson was a minister to France.
Koch's case has lifted the lid on the growing worldwide problem of counterfeit wine. His claims have prompted an FBI investigation in the US as well as provoking tension in the £80m-£90m fine-wine market. Rich customers are openly angry and are demanding changes to the way such wines are sold.
The case, featured in a book – The Billionaire's Vinegar – to be published later this year, also sparked huge interest in Hollywood. Rights to the book have been bought by a major Hollywood consortium, including actor Will Smith and Forrest Gump producer Steve Tisch.
It has also forced many top chateaux to take greater steps to protect their products. Since 2005, all wine bottles that travel outside France must be traceable. Christian Moueix, head of Château Pétrus, tackles the problem by using hi-tech labels and engravings on the bottle.
Last week it was revealed that a customer in a Michelin-starred London restaurant refused to touch an £18,000 bottle of 1961 Château Pétrus because the cork was not stamped with the mark of provenance.
Record breakers: What am I bid? The world's costliest wines
Most Expensive Regular-sized Bottle
A bottle of Château Lafite 1787, sold at Christie's, London, in 1985 for £105,000. It bears the initials of US president Thomas Jefferson etched into the glass.
Most Expensive Big Bottle
A jeroboam of Château Mouton-Rothschild 1945 sold at Christie's, London, in 1997 for £71,000.
Most Expensive Fortified Wine
A 1775 sherry from the Massandra collection, sold at Sotheby's in London, in 2001, for £27,500. The Massandra winery was considered the finest in Tsarist Russia.
Most Expensive Lot of Wine Sold at Auction
Six hundred bottles of Château Mouton-Rothschild 1982, sold at Christie's/Zachys in New York in 1997 for £200,000.
Most Expensive White Wine
A bottle of 1784 Château d'Yquem sold at Christie's, London, in 1986 for £36,000.Reuse content