Energy executive and wine collector William Koch has taken his personal crusade to clean up the collectible wine business to the Windy City, filing a lawsuit on Friday that accuses both the Chicago Wine Company and Julienne Importing of selling him counterfeit wine.
Koch claims that from 1987 to 1990, the Chicago Wine Company, a retailer and auction house, sold him 15 bottles of counterfeit wine for $150,000, including a bottle of 1787 Château Branne Mouton (now Mouton-Rothschild) that may have been owned by Thomas Jefferson. The lawsuit also alleges that 14 bottles of wine Koch purchased for $63,000, which were imported by Julienne and sold by the Chicago Wine Company and other retailers, are also counterfeit. Ironically, Koch was a major investor in the Chicago Wine Company for seven years.
"We have been going through our cellar with our experts and we have found a lot of counterfeits sold via Chicago Wine Company," said Brad Goldstein, Koch's spokesman. "They told us they would cooperate on getting to the sources for these bogus bottles but when push came to shove they provided very little—we were left with no other option."
Reached in Bordeaux, Chicago Wine Company president Devin Warner said he had not had a chance to read the complaint yet. "That being said, The Chicago Wine Company has never knowingly dealt in counterfeit wine and we intend to vigorously defend ourselves against any allegations to that effect," he said. Julienne owner and president James Ricker did not respond to requests for comment.
The Chicago suit is the third in Koch's campaign. He is currently suing Hardy Rodenstock, the German wine dealer who claims he found the Jefferson bottles, for fraud in federal court in New York. Koch bought a total of four Jefferson bottles. He is also suing Zachys Wine Auctions and wealthy California collector Eric Greenberg in New York over alleged counterfeits from Greenberg's cellars he bought at Zachys auctions. Since he began investigating the authenticity of the Jefferson bottles, Koch has had experts examining his entire collection.
"Mr. Koch is determined to get the marketplace to do a better job of policing itself," said Goldstein. "Right now there is no system in place to protect the collector, and the resellers appear to be only driven by profit." In addition to demands for damages, Koch has asked for an injunction restraining both the Chicago Wine Company and Julienne from selling any wine from before 1962 without authentication from a "qualified expert."
Koch's court filings in Chicago show how serious he was to build a sizable collection. Invoices show that Koch purchased several hundred rare wines from the Chicago Wine Company between 1987 and 1991, spending well over $1 million. The lawsuit also details why Koch's experts think the 15 wines from the Chicago Wine Company are fake. For example, several wines from the 1800s and early 1900s are allegedly in bottles with seamed mold marks on the bottom, a type of bottle not manufactured until the 1930s. A magnum of Château Pétrus 1945 has the vintage stamped on the label while the label on a magnum of Latour 1959 has creases and air bubbles from the wrong glue.
Koch actually bought 50 percent of the Chicago Wine Company in 1989, purchasing more wines while he was a shareholder. He sold his shares back to owner Philip Tenenbaum in 1996. Goldstein says Koch was not active in the company and was merely helping Tenenbaum out.