What's in the Bottle?
An investigation into the startling fraud accusations that have upended the fine wine world.
But Parker may have done more for Rodenstock than just boost his credibility. That "highest possible grade"—the 100-point rating that Parker gave to the 21 Pétrus at the Munich tasting—was a bonanza for anyone who had bottles of the 21 to sell, and judging from the import records that Koch obtained, Rodenstock had quite a few of them to unload. In 1991, a double magnum of the 21 had fetched $6,800 at a Christie's auction in London. Then came Parker's perfect score, which was catnip for wealthy collectors. In 2000, according to his insurance claim, Eric Greenberg paid nearly $10,000 apiece for five magnums of the '21, and five years later, Bill Koch spent almost $30,000 for one of Greenberg's magnums at the Zachys auction in New York. Although Parker had never had the wine before, he still believes that the '21 he drank in Munich was real, according to the tasting note that is available on his Web site. But in a 2007 interview with Toronto's Globe and Mail, he allowed that the bottle may have been a fake, and on his site, his wine reviews from that weekend now carry a note acknowledging the controversy surrounding Rodenstock. Whether the Munich bottle was genuine or not, Parker's 100-point rating ignited unprecedented demand for the '21, and it appears that Rodenstock, via Oliveros and Sokolin, furnished at least some of the supply.
The '21 Pétrus was just one of many suspect wines that Rodenstock shipped to Royal, which raises a disturbing possibility: Might Parker have been used by Oliveros and Sokolin, either on their own or in concert with Rodenstock, to move other potentially fraudulent wines? That is, did they serve him certain bottles, real or fake, because they wanted ratings that would help them sell phony versions of those wines? Oliveros said that he and Sokolin did not open any wines for Parker with an eye to obtaining scores but that Parker may have produced write-ups based on bottles that they shared with him. Last October, Koch's team, hoping to learn if there was a link between wines that Parker drank with Oliveros and Sokolin, his reviews, and any fakes that Royal might have put on the market, subpoenaed Parker's notes from those tastings. Parker replied that the documents Koch sought were publicly available, though he didn't specify which of his tasting notes were taken from events with Royal. (Koch also subpoenaed Parker's notes for events that involved Rodenstock; according to Koch spokesman Brad Goldstein, Parker turned over some 400 pages of published reviews and comments in response to that request.)
When he was deposed in February, Parker told Koch's attorney that some of his published tasting notes resulted from get-togethers with Oliveros and Sokolin; he gave no indication of how many. Parker was asked about one particular Oliveros and Sokolin tasting, and he said that he "probably didn't" mention in his published account of the event that it had been hosted by Royal because "I don't want to look like I'm promoting a retailer that is selling the wines." (Several editions of Parker'sWine Buyer's Guide included Oliveros, Sokolin, and Rodenstock in the acknowledgments, but all three men were missing from the most recent edition, which came out in 2008.)
Oliveros and Sokolin were not so discreet, and the Parker connection was apparently good for their business. Parker's relationship with them was well-known in wine circles, and it carried weight with other players in the market. As one merchant who says that he purchased a lot of wine from Royal—and who remains a Parker admirer—told Slate, "People look to Parker for guidance, and when you see him hanging out with these guys, of course it influences you. Who wouldn't be influenced?" Whether or not Parker was set up by Oliveros and Sokolin, the relationship that he had with them helped Royal sell wines, and many of the wines that it sold were evidently fakes. There is no indication that Parker was complicit in any wrongdoing. But by becoming entangled with Oliveros, Sokolin, and Rodenstock, he may have unwittingly had a role in corrupting the fine wine market, which would be a bitter irony for a critic who claimed Ralph Nader as his inspiration and who has long presented himself as the consumer's advocate.
Clarification, June 23, 2010:Jeff Sokolin of Royal is not to be confused with Dave Sokolin, the owner of Sokolin LLC, a wine retailer in Bridgehampton, New York. The two are distant relatives, and Jeff Sokolin and Oliveros worked for Sokolin LLC before starting Royal Wine Merchants. However, there is no relationship between Royal and Sokolin LLC.
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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.