Tuesday, July 10, 2018

The Jefferson wines

Imagine the surprise to find a bottle of 1787 Lafitte handpicked by Thomas Jefferson.  This is what Bill Koch thought when he purchased four bottles in 1988 at well over $100,000 each.  It would have been a great find if it was real, but as it turned out there were a couple of glaring clues that these bottles were fake.

The first was that the signature Th.J was inaccurate.  According to Monticello's resident historian, Jefferson initialed his name Th:J.  The second and most telling is that Jefferson made no record of these purchases in his diaries, and as we all know he was an extremely dutiful diarist, cataloging his life in exquisite detail, except for his relationship with Sally Hemings.

So, why didn't a billionaire like Bill Koch do his due diligence before making such a hefty purchase?  For one, he trusted their providence since the bottles were originally sold at Christie's, a well-respected auction house; and two the temptation was just too great to pass up.  When would bottles like these next appear on the market?

Vintage wines became a gold mine for speculators in the late 80s and 90s, with prices soaring through the cellar roof.  Bill Koch quickly amassed an enormous collection, having to greatly expand his cellar under his West Palm Beach home to accommodate all these rare vintages.

Yes, he is one of the infamous Koch brothers, so no reason feeling too sorry for him, but as you can imagine he was none too happy when he found he had been cheated.  He did what any tycoon would do, hire an investigative team to track down the source of this fraud.

It turned out to be a man who went by the name Hardy Rodenstock.  This alone should have tipped prospective buyers off, but Hardy not only had an uncanny way of finding extremely rare bottles of wine, but also the ability to convince people they were genuine.  The self-professed German nobleman very quickly amassed a fortune to go along with his faux wines, staging lavish wine-tasting parties with no spitting allowed.  He would only bring out his prized vintages at the end of the night, by which time everyone was pretty well sloshed and he could have given them bottles of cheap Merlot for all they knew.

Nevertheless, these parties became the talk of the wine world, and Hardy grew richer and richer and greedier and greedier, until he came up against the wrong man.  Koch finally cornered Rodenstock in 2007.  By this point, he was also hounding another dubious wine dealer named Rudy Kurniawan, who had sold him some fake Burgundies, and was the subject of the documentary, Sour Grapes, which lifted the lid off this fake wine business.  Unlike Kurniawan, Rodenstock managed to skate clean, as charges were brought against him in the US, and Germany refused to extradite him.  Rodenstock quietly passed away earlier this year, still claiming the Jefferson wines were real.


  1. Recently, I watched an episode of Antiques Roadshow and saw where a great many items such as arts, antiques, vases, and historical letters have vastly declined in value. This appeared to be especially so for items that were American in origin. The only explanation given was that interest in the subject has greatly declined.

    When I think about it, that may well explain why we no longer have long discussions on American topics in this forum. Sadly, interest in the subject has waned all over the USA both for books and once cherished items.

    But who knows ~ this may well give an opportunity for some to invest in antiques because of their lower values. And then someday those values will likely go up again. Like I said, who knows??

  2. I think persons are more leery about what they are buying. So many fakes out there. Not just wines.