What's in the Bottle?
An investigation into the startling fraud accusations that have upended the fine wine world.
In October 2005, Greenberg sold 17,000 bottles of wine at a Zachys auction in New York. Bill Koch participated in that sale, and among his purchases was a magnum of 1921 Pétrus, for which he paid $29,500. A few months later, suddenly concerned about the authenticity of many of his wines, Koch sent the magnum to Bordeaux to be inspected by the Pétrus staff. They concluded that it was a fake, according to Koch spokesman Brad Goldstein. In their judgment, the cork was an incorrect length, and both the capsule and label had been doctored to look old. The château confirmed for Slate that it had expressed serious doubts about Koch's magnum.
In his suit against Greenberg, Koch says that he was told by Zachys, which is also named in the complaint, that the magnum had been put up for sale by Greenberg. (Reached by e-mail, Jeff Zacharia, the president of Zachys Wine Auctions, said, "No one is disputing the claim that the bottle of 1921 Petrus that Bill Koch purchased at the October 2005 auction came from Eric Greenberg's consignment.") Koch alleges that Greenberg subsequently informed him that he believed he had bought the bottle from Royal, and Greenberg's insurance claim would appear to corroborate this. Greenberg, through his lawyer, refused to comment. In his answer to Koch's lawsuit, Greenberg denied Koch's claim that Sotheby's and Edgerton had discovered a number of fake wines in his cellar, denied knowingly selling any fake wines, and said that Koch had spurned his offer of a refund. In 2008, his motion to have the case dismissed was rejected by U.S. District Judge Barbara S. Jones, who wrote that "the particularly egregious nature of Greenberg's alleged conduct is demonstrated by his decision to sell wine at auction that he knew two experts had determined to be counterfeit." Interviewed by the Wine Spectator last year[subscription required], Greenberg said of Koch's lawsuit: "Out of 17,000 bottles I consigned, he found a couple of fakes. That's not fraud, that's a mistake. I did not knowingly put fake wine out there." Over the Memorial Day weekend, Greenberg sold around $19 million worth of wine at an Acker Merrall & Condit auction in Hong Kong. According to Acker, it was the second-biggest wine auction in history.
So if Greenberg bought the Pétrus magnum from Royal, where did Royal get the bottle ? The shipping invoices obtained by Koch suggest it came from Rodenstock. The records show that Rodenstock sent 21 magnums of 1921 Pétrus to Royal between 1998 and 2004. Eleven arrived prior to 2000, the year that Greenberg purchased his five magnums, according to his insurance claim. Oliveros said he couldn't comment on the invoices but that Royal has received '21 Pétrus from Rodenstock in the past. A source close to Pétrus told me he was "more than skeptical" about the authenticity of Rodenstock's magnums. He said that the château has no record of magnums being bottled there in the 1920s. Some négociants may have produced magnums of the '21; back in the day, Pétrus sold part of its output in bulk to merchants who would bottle and label the wines themselves. But he noted that in the 1920s, Pétrus was considered an everyday wine best consumed young and there thus would have been little demand for large-format bottles and little incentive to make more than just a token number of them. The idea that one person, some 80 years later, could unearth nearly two dozen magnums of the '21 struck the source as highly unlikely.
If Rodenstock's ability to procure so many 1921 Pétrus magnums seems suspicious, the timing of his shipments makes perfect sense. Starting in the mid-1990s, demand for the '21 surged thanks to the 100-point rating that Robert Parker had recently awarded the wine. Parker's tasting note was effusive. He described the '21 as "out of this universe!" and "one of the sweetest, most opulent, thick, juicy wines I have ever tasted." His note was based on a magnum that was served by Rodenstock at a bacchanal he hosted in Munich in the fall of 1995. Joining Parker in Munich that weekend were Oliveros and Sokolin. In all likelihood, Parker wouldn't have been there had it not been for them.
During the 1990s, Parker regularly met up with Oliveros and Sokolin. When Slate contacted Parker, who is 62, with a list of questions pertaining to Royal, his lawyer responded with a letter stating that he'd advised Parker not to comment. The reticence is understandable: It now appears that Royal dumped a lot of counterfeit wines on the market over the last two decades.
In February, Parker was deposed by an attorney for Koch, and much of the discussion focused on his ties to Oliveros and Sokolin. In the deposition, which Slate obtained, Parker said that he "saw them socially a number of times" and that they "seemed to have a lot of contacts for wine." This last point surely explains much of the attraction for Parker: The Royal duo shared many rare wines with him. During the deposition, Parker said that he stopped getting together with Oliveros and Sokolin in the late 1990s because of concerns he had about their "excessive lifestyle" and also about the authenticity of their wines; according to Parker, they had sold a friend of his, a collector named Park B. Smith, fake bottles of 1990 Château Rayas, a Châteauneuf-du-Pape.
Photograph of Hardy Rodenstock and Robert Parker and Magnums of Petrus courtesy of Bill Koch. Reprinted with permission. Photograph of Bill Koch by Patrick McMullan/Patrick McMullan.com/Sipa Press.