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Wendler on Wine
14 May, 2008  
In vino veritas

Florida billionaire Bill Koch is convinced that rare and fine wine dealer Hardy Rodenstock is a con man. He’s chasing Rodenstock through the US federal courts and in the process some big reputations could end up in the spittoon. Sydney barrister G.D. Wendler starts his regular wine column for Justinian

imageI’ve been a keen follower of the scandal swirling around the international fine and rare wine market – namely the alleged activities of Hardy Rodenstock (aka Meinhard Goerke) [pic], a defendant in a US Federal Court action in New York.

Herr Rodenstock, whose former occupations include working as an employee of Deutsch Eisenbahn and promoting a pop band, is being sued for fraud by Florida tycoon, Bill Koch.

Koch’s legal action against Rodenstock and others concerns the authenticity of four bottles of Bordeaux wine, comprising two bottles of Ch.Lafite 1784 and 1787 and two bottles of Ch.Branne Mouton 1784 and 1787 (now Mouton Rothschild), allegedly once the property of Thomas Jefferson, the third President of the USA.

The bottles originated from Rodenstock, although Koch purchased them from the Chicago Wine Company and other wine dealers.

Rodenstock swears this wine, and others of comparable vintage, was discovered in a secret walled-up cellar in Paris.

To date he has steadfastly refused to reveal any particulars concerning the identity of the vendor or even insinuate the address of this Aladdin’s cave of wine, discovered by him and paid for in cash.

imageBesides fathering the Declaration of Independence and many illegitimate children, Jefferson also was a wine connoisseur and gourmand.

The disputed bottles are engraved with the initials “Th.J”* and Koch purchased them for $US500,000.

Subsequently, he sought further evidence of their provenance and engaged experts at Monticello, Jefferson’s neo-Palladian fantasy house in Virginia and home to the Thomas Jefferson Foundation.

The experts were unable to find any reference to Jefferson’s association with this wine. There was the later discovery that the engraving on the bottles had been done by a power tool from the 1960s, not an implement from the 1760s.

Koch realising he had been, as they say in the US, “taken for a sucker”, told a reporter from The New Yorker:

“I’ve bought so much art, so many guns, so many other things, that if somebody’s out to cheat me I want the son of a bitch to pay for it.”

Koch is certainly on an historical mission to hold Rodenstock and the rare wine industry accountable and with bushels of money has hired plenty of experts, including ex-FBI agents to forensically examine the physical properties of the bottles.

Has Rodenstock been defrauding the international fine and rare wine market for almost 30 years?

Apparently the German deals in hard-to-find, very old Bordeaux clarets, specially premier grand cru classe and other famous marques.

DRC Burgundy as well as Ch d’Yquem are also of great interest to him. His speciality appears to be 18th and 19th century wine and other famous but difficult to obtain and expensive vintages, such as 1921, 1929, 1945, 1947, 1949 and 1959.

imageRodenstock is at the centre of an assortment of fabulous stories and audacious acts, including:

1. Selling Koch (pic) a magnum of 1921 Ch Petrus for $US33,000. This sale stirred great interest, especially at the Chateau in Pomerol since there is no record of any wine being bottled in magnums in 1921!

2. The discovery in 2004 by Rodenstock’s former landlord, Andreas Klein, of a hoard of empty bottles, corks and blank wine labels in Rodenstock’s abandoned apartment. “I take the labels from old bottles to have them framed,” was one of his rejoinders.

3. Koch has two magnums of the rare and famous 1947 Ch Lafleur that he believes could have originated from Rodenstock. Given that only five were ever produced Koch mathematically estimated the chances of having two of them suggested both were fakes. This was later confirmed by experts.

4. Rodenstock’s alleged discovery in Russia of the Tsar’s lost cellar of 19th century wine.

5. Regularly holding, at his own expense, vertical tastings of rare vintages in particular Ch d’Yquem. At one imageparticular Ch d’Yquem vertical at the Konigshof Hotel, Munich, in 1998 there were 125 wines tasted commencing with the 1784 vintage! Rodenstock was heard to boast that he had tasted more d’Yquem than the Comte de Lur Saluces (pic), the owner of the chateau!

6. Michael Broadbent, Master of Wine, former director of Christies wine sales, president of the International Wine and Food Society and numero uno of the fine and rare wine beau monde, described Rodenstock as a, “most lavish giver of major wine events, to which he invites his close friends, among whose number I am lucky to count myself. Hardy is a remarkably modest man but jealous of his sources”. On one memorable pig-in Broadbent’s tasting note records: “75 wines, eight courses, sat down at 12 midday got up again at 12 midnight.”

If it be established that Rodenstock is indeed a peddler of phony vintage wines, Michael Broadbent’s credibility as a wine critic will sink like the Hindenberg.

imageBroadbent (pic), who has just turned 81, has published three books that comprise a selection of notes taken from over 80,000 of his tasting entries.

His first volume, published in 1980, does not refer to Rodenstock as the purveyor of any old or rare wines submitted for Broadbent’s scrutiny.

However his two subsequent books, published in 1991 and 2002, most certainly refer to Rodenstock as the source of numerous 19th century wines evaluated by the Master of Wine; e.g. Ch Ducru-Beaucaillou 1867, Ch Leoville-Barton 1871, Ch Haut Brion 1875, Ch Latour 1878 to name a few.

A Broadbent tasting note concerning a bottle of Ch Cos d’Estournel 1893 supplied by Rodenstock and tasted by Broadbent in September 1987 records: “tasting as if topped up with something like a Lafite 1912 before recorking.”

Possibly that is Broadbent’s only reliable note concerning a vintage wine supplied by Rodenstock.

Rodenstock has refused to fully co-operate in the legal action prosecuted by Koch. However, the defendant did have a recent titular victory against the plaintiff on a point of jurisdiction, but this has only served to made the gung-ho Floridean more determined to pursue the “con man of the grapevine” until he is “locked up”.

In vino veritas. Hoc ei propinabo.

G.D. Wendler

Gabriel Wendler is at the Sydney bar. For over 30 years he’s been variously a wine maker, vineyard worker, collector and drinker. He’s very familiar with most of the wine growing areas of Australia and New Zealand, and the French regions of Bordeaux, Burgundy, Languedoc-Roussillon, Provence, the Rhone Valley and Champagne. Wines from Portugal and from Tokay and Eger in Hungary have not escaped his attention.

*Photo© William Koch