What's in the Bottle?
An investigation into the startling fraud accusations that have upended the fine wine world.
Daniel Oliveros and Jeff Sokolin were known as the "sexy boys" because they often described the wines they sold as "sexy juice." Oliveros and Sokolin ran Royal Wine Merchants, a Manhattan retailer that was, until a few years ago, one of the biggest players in the fine wine market. They lived as lavishly as their wealthy customers—staying in swank hotels, often hiring limousines, and routinely opening thousands of dollars' worth of rare wines. Oliveros' marriage to porn star Savanna Samson added to the aura and the intrigue. But what really set the sexy boys apart was their seemingly limitless stock of legendary old wines, many of them in supersize bottles—quantities and formats that no one else could get their hands on. They bombarded clients with faxes touting their latest finds: multiple bottles of 1961 Latour à Pomerol ("Kinky Juice!"), magnums of 1945 Mouton Rothschild ("our latest sexy purchase"), a double magnum of 1949 Cheval Blanc ("Perfect condition. Better than 1947!!! Trust me!!!"). It seemed too good to be true. Apparently, it was.
Billionaire wine collector Bill Koch recently filed a lawsuit against Christie's auction house that includes some provocative claims about Oliveros and Sokolin. Third-party import records obtained by Koch suggest that Royal served as a conduit for Hardy Rodenstock, the suspected wine counterfeiter at the heart of the flap over the so-called Thomas Jefferson bottles. These invoices, which provide the first solid numbers hinting at the scale of Rodenstock's activities, show that the Munich-based collector shipped hundreds of bottles of wine, virtually all of them rarities, to the United States through Royal. The quantities are improbably large, and wine experts who have seen the figures believe that many if not most of these wines were knockoffs. Koch's suit doesn't say what Royal did with the bottles that it received from Rodenstock, but Slate has turned up evidence tying Oliveros and Sokolin to the sales of counterfeit wines, and at least one of the fakes they allegedly sold, a 1921 Château Pétrus, is on the list of wines that Rodenstock sent to them.
Koch, a 70-year-old energy tycoon, is notoriously litigious, and the Christie's complaint is the sixth lawsuit he has brought since 2006 as part of an effort to combat what he believes is an epidemic of wine counterfeiting. Three weeks ago, a U.S. District Court awarded him a default judgment in litigation that he had initiated against Rodenstock in 2006. On May 27, a New York court dealt him a setback, dismissing a fraud complaint that he had filed against Acker Merrall & Condit, another auction house, in 2008. The four other suits are still pending. Koch, who has a 40,000-bottle collection, purchased four of the Jefferson wines in the late 1980s, and he launched his crusade after learning that these were likely fakes and that other wines in his cellar were also suspect. Koch seems to feel that the wine auction market is full of swindlers and charlatans. I'm not quite so cynical, but having examined his many claims skeptically, I think that he is shining some light in a place that badly needs it. Many industry insiders agree and believe the Rodenstock invoices prove that the rare wine business has indeed been polluted by fraud.
Koch's lawsuit against Christie's also puts another name into play: Robert Parker, the world's most influential wine critic. The 1921 Pétrus—a wine that links Rodenstock to Royal, and Royal to the sale of counterfeit wines—became a highly sought-after collectible when Parker awarded it a perfect score, 100 points, at a tasting that Rodenstock hosted in Munich in 1995. In recent years, amid growing controversy over Rodenstock, Parker has sought to downplay his presence at that event and to distance himself from the metastasizing counterfeiting scandal. But Koch's allegations about Royal have now brought the scandal right to his glass. While no one is accusing Parker of any improprieties, the information concerning Royal raises a troubling question: Did Oliveros, Sokolin, and Rodenstock take advantage of their connection to Parker to help sell fake wines?
Oliveros, a native of Venezuela, and Sokolin, who is of Russian descent, opened Royal in 1990. The liquor license was in Sokolin's name alone. Four years earlier, according to court records, Oliveros had been arrested and charged with stealing approximately $20,000 worth of wine from Long Island's Garden City Hotel, where he had been employed. Reached by phone, Oliveros confirmed the arrest and said he had pleaded guilty.
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.