What's in the Bottle?
An investigation into the startling fraud accusations that have upended the fine wine world.
Parker took part in some of Oliveros and Sokolin's big tastings. During his deposition, he recalled participating in three of them. A collector who went to many of these events told me that Parker was present for "at least a half-dozen." Three other people with whom I spoke and who also attended various Oliveros and Sokolin tastings said that Parker was among the guests when they went. (All of these individuals believe that the wines poured on these occasions were legitimate. One theory that has been suggested: Oliveros and Sokolin served Parker the genuine articles and pawned off their fakes on less discerning palates.) In addition to attending these gatherings, which would bring together a number of aficionados, Parker, who lives in Maryland, often joined Oliveros and Sokolin for wine-soaked lunches in New York. The multiple sources who provided this information said the lunches were normally held at Restaurant Daniel, and that Oliveros and Sokolin would typically have several clients in tow and would also supply many if not most of the wines—usually older Bordeaux. Parker wasn't asked about the lunches during his deposition. But Oliveros confirmed for Slate that they took place "once every six months, or twice every six months, depending on [Parker's] schedule. Whenever he might have been in town, we would organize something if he had the time." He said the get-togethers ended after Restaurant Daniel stopped serving lunch in 2001.
Oliveros said that he and Sokolin never tried to cash in on their ties to Parker. "He was just a professional writer we admired," Oliveros told Slate. But it doesn't appear that they were shy about advertising the relationship; even now, Royal's Web site features photos of the three men hanging out together. Eric Greenberg's insurance claim includes what were evidently private offers to him from Royal, and some of these solicitations made clear that Oliveros and Sokolin were on close terms with Parker. When Royal tried to interest Greenberg in a double magnum of 1921 Haut-Brion, the note said, "Unfortunately, Bob has not tried it yet so I have no reviews to give you." A message touting a magnum of 1947 Latour à Pomerol read, "Jeff just called from Brussels where he was able to secure one or more of these puppies. He and Daniel were at a tasting with Mr. Parker and Frans de Cock where they drank magnums of 1947 Mouton, 1947 Lafleur, 1948 Lafleur Petrus, 1979 Ramonet Montrachet, 1980 Jayer Echezeaux and all were excellent. …"
In his deposition, Parker said that Oliveros and Sokolin introduced him to Rodenstock. He told Koch's attorney that the four men had dined together twice in Paris and that it was obvious to him that Oliveros, Sokolin, and Rodenstock were "good friends or business associates." Like Oliveros and Sokolin, Rodenstock was renowned for the tastings that he hosted, but his were even more decadent—they were often multiday affairs that featured wines spanning several centuries. And he was apparently very intent on getting Parker, the world's pre-eminent wine critic, to come to his events; Parker told Koch's lawyer that he was invited to a number of Rodenstock tastings before he'd even met the German. Parker finally went to one in 1995; he was among the guests at a weekend-long wine orgy in Munich organized by Rodenstock. In recent years, Parker has said that this was the only Rodenstock fete he ever attended and that the "over-the-top generosity and extravagance was enough to scare me away from all other invitations."
But that doesn't square with what he said at the time. In the February 1996 issue of his newsletter, the Wine Advocate, Parker wrote that the Munich gathering was "the most extraordinary three days of wine tasting, superb eating, and wine camaraderie that I have ever experienced." He was full of praise for Rodenstock and dismissed concerns that had been expressed about him and his wines. Parker wrote that the "unkind remarks I had read about [Rodenstock] were untrue. A man of extraordinary charm and graciousness, Rodenstock is a true wine lover in the greatest sense of the word, as well as exceptionally knowledgeable, and generous to a fault (he charges nothing for the opportunity to participate in his tastings)."
Nor was the Munich tasting the last time that Parker saw Rodenstock or benefited from his generosity. In December 1996, he was a guest at Rodenstock's 55th birthday party, which was held in New York. It was an intimate gathering—about 10 people at Restaurant Daniel. Oliveros and Sokolin were among the other attendees. Rodenstock supplied the wines, which included a bottle of 1961 Pétrus, magnums of various 1948 Pomerols, magnums of 1900 Pétrus and 1899 L'Eglise-Clinet, and a bottle of 1841 Château d'Yquem. Although Parker's book Bordeaux: A Consumer's Guide to the World's Finest Wines, includes a tasting note, dated "December 1996," for what he said was "believed to be a magnum of the 1900 Pétrus found in a private cellar in St-Emilion" (he didn't love it, rating it just 89 points), Parker said in his deposition that he couldn't remember the evening. However, two other people who were there not only recalled the dinner well enough to name all the guests and all the wines, but the exact date that the party took place (December 7). Oliveros, too, remembered a dinner at Daniel with Parker and Rodenstock but said he couldn't recall the date or if it was a birthday celebration.
Parker has always insisted that it is "imperative" for a critic to keep his distance from the wine trade, and one reason that he came to wield such remarkable influence was the widespread perception that he scrupulously avoided compromising situations. In his deposition, Parker claimed that at the time of the Munich tasting, he was unaware that Rodenstock was selling wines. But he said it was clear that the German had courted him because he wanted the validation. As Parker put it, "I assumed it was because of my prominence in the wine field … it was sort of like, if I can get Parker, that would be great … you line up the head people in the field, you get them there, it gives credibility to your tasting. They then write about it and in my case write very favorably about it. It's a win win win situation for Rodenstock." Photos from the Munich event show Rodenstock at Parker's side, and in the years since, he has invoked the famed critic to defend himself against accusations of fraud. Rodenstock named Parker as a potential supporting witness in the lawsuit that Koch brought against him. In a letter that he sent to one of Koch's attorneys in 2008, he denied serving counterfeit wines at some tastings in New York; he said that the authenticity of the bottles "can be testified by Robert Parker, the worldwide no. 1 wine expert. He was there and his tasting notes can be read in his books or on the internet" (he didn't specify which tastings or when they took place). Asked by The New Yorker in 2007 about the 1921 Pétrus, one of the wines served in Munich, Rodenstock noted Parker's 100-point rating and said, "Is there any better proof that the wine was genuine when world-renowned experts described it as superb and gave it the highest possible grade?"
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.