Belfast Telegraph

Friday 25 July 2014

Billionaire whines over dud bottles

Florida energy magnate William Koch arrives at Manhattan federal court (AP)

A civil trial that threatens to uncork the dirty secrets of the wine auction world has begun in New York.

Two uber-rich wine collectors are squaring off in court over questionable bottles.

William Koch, a billionaire yachtsman and collector, is suing one-time-billionaire businessman Eric Greenberg in US District Court over 320,000 dollars (£212,000) he spent in 2005 on two dozen bottles of wine that turned out to be fake.

Mr Koch's lawyer John Hueston said it was heartbreaking for a true collector to learn that wine was not authentic because it was more than just a bottle and a flavour. "Koch will say these are links to history," he said, adding that great wines transport people to another era. "It's not just the juice in the package."

But Mr Greenberg protested his innocence as he took the stand as one of the trial's first witnesses. "I wouldn't sell a fake wine," he said. "I've never intentionally sold fake wine in my life."

Mr Koch, the brother of famous industrialists and conservative political supporters David and Charles Koch, is seeking compensation along with unspecified damages. The dangers of trading in rare wines was already apparent to Mr Koch, who learned in 2005 that four bottles of French wine he believed had been once owned by Thomas Jefferson were fake.

Since then he has been on a a crusade against wine fakery, having sued wine companies, auction houses and Mr Greenberg, saying in court papers that counterfeiters have for years "duped wine collectors into paying millions of dollars for near worthless bottles of wine".

Mr Greenberg capitalised years ago on the growing interest in the sale of alcohol for investment purposes, becoming one of the world's top owners of vintage wine, with a collection of more than 70,000 bottles. According to court documents, he earned about nine million dollars (£6 million) when he sold 17,000 bottles of wine at the sale where Mr Koch made his purchases, reducing his collection by about a quarter.

Unscrupulous wine dealers have been known to put fine-vintage labels on cheaper bottles and try to pass them off as the real thing. Mr Greenberg is not alleged to have done that himself, but Mr Koch's lawyers say he should have known something was amiss.

An investigation revealed that Mr Greenberg had been warned by experts that bottles in his collection were not authentic and decided to push them on unwitting buyers at his auction rather than discard them, Mr Hueston said. Mr Greenberg was not to blame for any bad bottles of wine Mr Koch bought, said Arthur Shartsis, one of Mr Greenberg's lawyers.

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