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Mad-As-Hell French Winemakers Take (Spanish Wine) to the Streets

Plus, counterfeit-buster Bill Koch auctions off his (authenticated) wines and the Obamas drink Catena Zapata in Argentina
Photo by: RAYMOND ROIG/AFP/Getty Images
One for the road.

Posted: April 7, 2016

What's black and white and red all over? A highway in the south of France, after a 150-strong gang of irate French winemakers hijacked five tanker trucks and dumped their contents—90,000 bottles' worth of Spanish bulk wine—all over the road. What's that about? French winemakers have a storied history of responding to things they don't like—be they experimental vineyards, unwelcome competitors, or just their neighbors—by simply destroying them. In this case, the winemakers sharpened their (figurative) pitchforks against Spain because they claim the wine, destined for bottling and subsequent sales in and out of France, presents unfair competition.

Speaking to the Telegraph, Frédéric Rouanet, the president of the Aude winemakers’ union, said, "If a French winemaker produced wine with Spanish rules, he simply wouldn’t be able to sell it." French winemakers contend that to follow their own country’s rules requires them to price their wine far above the Spanish juice—a squeeze on the bulk market that the south of France once had cornered.

Denis Pigouche, president of a winemaking organization called FDSEA des Pyrénées Orientales, went even harder, according to the Telegraph, accusing the wines of not even being Spanish: "These wines have no place in France … I suspect they are from South America and then 'Hispanicized' in Barcelona and then Europeanized, or even Frenchified in France."

After an impromptu but no doubt thorough and objective tasting held in the street, the French winemakers rated the tanker wines "vin non conforme" (non-compliant wine), leaving that tasting note spray-painted on the sides of the tanks.

Spain, none too pleased, lodged a formal complaint with Brussels, citing that the "guarantee of free movement of goods and people within Europe is one of the basic tenets of the E.U." Among the evidence of bad faith is the report that the police largely stood back and let the attack take place, and while vowing to find those responsible, have not made any arrests to date.


Billionaire Bill Koch Auctioning Off 20,000 Bottles, But Sells No Wine Before Its Authentication

Bill Koch has always been upfront in declaring that his 43,000-bottle wine collection had been infiltrated by counterfeits: After all, he publicly led the charge against fake wines, filing lawsuits accusing figures like Hardy Rodenstock and Rudy Kurniawan of selling him fraudulent bottles (the latter, of course, would be convicted on federal fraud charges). Now, Koch is putting 20,000 bottles up for auction at Sotheby's on May 19-21, which might raise two questions: Why is the man who spent so much money and effort to clean up his cellar selling off nearly half of it? And how can one be sure that the world's most famous unintentional collector of forged wines is consigning the real deal?

The answer to the former question is mundane enough: "We looked at my and my wife's habits," Koch told Unfiltered. "There are some wines that we drink regularly and some we have a small probability of ever drinking. Or we have 150 bottles of something and, my gosh, we'll never drink them all."

As for the latter: It's unlikely anyone has ever pulled together a crack squad of counterfeit-fighting superheroes with the same firepower Koch has in his years battling wine fraud. "I've hired a dozen experts in different fields to come in and look at my collection," he said. "We found more than 400 fakes that had cost me over $4 million, and we think we got 'em all," including some heart-breakers like magnums of "Château Pétrus 1921" and "Château Mouton-Rothschild 1945." While the auction is expected to fetch between $10.5 and $15 million, Koch insisted, "I spent more on authentication and lawsuits than I’ll get for selling almost half my collection."

Among the specialists called to Koch’s cellars was Eric Soulat, whose Bordeaux-based family firm Grands Comptes has printed wine labels for the top châteaus for generations. Arriving with a satchel packed with archival labels, Soulat spent three weeks finding frauds in Koch’s vast cellars in Palm Beach and Cape Cod. He found more than 100 faked labels, according to Brad Goldstein, who oversaw Koch's decade-long counterfeit seek-and-destroy mission. More fakes were turned up by a materials expert on waxes and glues, who discovered labels affixed with Elmer’s from vintages predating the introduction of the sticky white stuff in the late 1940s.

Koch also sent hundreds of suspect bottles to the source—Bordeaux—for inspection. "I took the 1921 Pétrus in magnum to the château myself," said Koch. "They basically said that they never made magnums back then." Koch even sent gamma ray detectors to the University of Bordeaux, where physicist Philippe Hubert tested bottles for traces of Cesium-137, a radioactive isotope that invisibly infiltrates everything—including wine bottles—but did not exist before the first atomic explosions in 1945. (Not for nothing, Sotheby's submitted the collection to its own standard rigorous inspections as well.)

Will Koch attend the sale? "I really don't know," he said. "If I do, I just might cry because the wines are gone—or because the prices aren't high."


Obama's Mendoza

When in Argentina! Isn't that right, Señor Presidente Barack Obama? During a recent state dinner in Buenos Aires, the President and First Lady showed they could tango with the best of them in Argentina. After official meetings with President Mauricio Macri, the Obamas dined on regional South American specialties including smoked trout and vegetables, baked lamb with potatoes and a dulce de leche dessert. Mendoza winery Bodega Catena Zapata, whose founder Nicolás Catena is a titan in the industry, provided the libations. With the appetizer and entrée, the diners sipped "Angélica" series Chardonnay and Malbec from the Mendoza Alta region. D.V. Nature, a méthode traditionelle sparkling wine from the high-altitude Tupungato subregion of Mendoza, accompanied dessert. After a few glasses of vino, the Obamas got into fiesta mode and took their tango game to the literal dance floor. Professional tango dancers lured out the ever-suave first couple to show off some fancy footwork. Salud!


Big Cheers for Sonoma and Willamette Auctions

It's been a good few weeks for West Coast wine auctions. On March 31, the Sonoma Wine Country Weekend sponsors presented their record haul from last fall's charity extravaganza, which came to more than $3.4 million, to children's literacy programs under the Fund the Future initiative, plus 81 other non-profit groups around Sonoma County. The whole weekend is a bonanza, but the Sonoma Harvest Wine Auction is the biggest moneymaker. (One of the hottest lots was a private dinner at the Hamel Family winery with a menu from Patrick O’Connell—chef at the Grand Award-winning Inn at Little Washington—and a performance from Grammy-winner Bruce Hornsby, who played keyboard with the Grateful Dead.) In its 22nd annual event, the auction brought in over $2.4 million, making it the No. 3 fundraiser in Wine Spectator’s 2015 charity wine auction report. Dan Goldfield of Dutton-Goldfield Winery and president of the Sonoma County Vintners Foundation spoke at the check presentation: "It’s such a pleasure to be part of something larger than ourselves."

A brand new wine auction got Unfiltered's attention too, this one held in Oregon's Willamette Valley on April 2. Josh Bergström, auction chairman, felt it was high time to show off the region's world-class Pinots with a grand auction, called Willamette: The Pinot Noir Barrel Auction. "We are thrilled at the success of this event. In the past 50 years we have been unable to establish a fundraising mechanism that can help take our big ideas to the world’s stage…until now," he told Unfiltered. The event, held the Allison Inn & Spa in Newberg, Ore., raised $476,000, with proceeds going to the Willamette Valley Wineries Association. Sixty-six local Pinot Noir producers showed off their wines, and the very first lot—five cases from Bergström—hit $10,000 in a matter of minutes. Other highlights included the first available wines from the new Nicolas-Jay and Lavinea projects, from Burgundian Jean-Nicolas Méo and Jay Boberg, and Greg Ralston and Isabelle Meunier, respectively.

Robert Archibald
Portland, OR —  April 20, 2016 12:40am ET
In the article on this new wine auction, nothing is ever mentioned of another wine auction that has been around for a number of years - the Salud! wine auction held in Yamhill County every year to support aid for vineyard workers. And then there's the Classic Wine Auction in Portland that is usually considered one of the 10 best wine auctions in the country. No mention in the article, to put this new auction into perspective. Basically, there was no perspective.

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