An Atlanta wine collector is suing a London wine merchant for more than $25 million, alleging that the dealer sold him 15 bottles of fake rare Bordeauxs ranging from 1908 back to 1787. Julian LeCraw Jr., a real-estate investor, filed suit April 17 in a federal court in Atlanta, accusing U.K. wine retailer Antique Wine Company and its founder and CEO Stephen Williams of fraud and racketeering.
Speaking for his client, LeCraw's attorney, John Sullivan of Burr & Forman, told Wine Spectator, “This suit is not a case of an itchy trigger finger. I’m guessing I wrote to their lawyers 15 times [before suing.] It was bad enough when Julian found out that the wines were fake, but when he met with such resistance and defiance, it went from hurt feelings to frustration."
"The Antique Wine Company strongly denies the allegations presented by Julian LeCraw that we sold him counterfeit wine and failed to pay him for consigned wine worth millions of dollars," said Williams. "It is very regrettable that having been unable to resolve this dispute by dialogue, we must now rely upon the court to administer justice in this matter."
With offices in London and Hong Kong, Antique Wine Company represents itself as a top source for rare wines and its staff as experts on wine authentication. According to his complaint, LeCraw began buying wine from the firm a decade ago. In 2006, he made several notable purchases—a bottle of Château d'Yquem 1787, Yquem 1847, a 6-liter bottle of Château Margaux 1908 and 12 bottles of Château Lafite Rothschild, ranging in vintage from 1784 to 1906. Three of the Lafites were magnums.
Williams issued several press releases on the 1787 d'Yquem sale, which totaled $91,400 including insurance, though he kept the buyer's identity a secret at LeCraw's request. He stated that the grapes were picked before George Washington became president and flew the bottle from London to Atlanta personally. He told one publication, “It might be the most expensive and pampered traveling companion I ever had, but at £10,000 per glass, I have to be sure our client is left with a sweet taste in his mouth.”
In early 2013, LeCraw states he invited Frank Martell, wine director of San Francisco-based Heritage Auctions, to visit his cellar with the intention of selling off some of his wine. Martell questioned the authenticity of the 15 bottles of Bordeaux. LeCraw hired Maureen Downey, a wine authentication expert and founder of Chai Consulting, to examine the bottles.
“Maureen told my client on the spot that the wines at issue were fake,” said Sullivan. Her report alleges that some of the labels were printed by computer. There were questionable corks, capsules and problems with the shape and color of the bottles. Sullivan sent portions of her report to Antique Wine Company. In response, according to the complaint, Antique Wine Company’s lawyers “attacked Downey’s methodologies."
Early this year, Sullivan and Downey traveled to Bordeaux with the two bottles of Yquem and eight of the Lafites in tow. According to the complaint, on March 19, a team at Château d’Yquem, headed by cellar master Sandrine Garbay, examined the two bottles of Yquem and pronounced them both counterfeit.
The next day, Sullivan and Downey drove to Château Lafite Rothschild. Charles Chevallier, director of domaines for Domaines Barons de Rothschild, declared the bottles to be “faux, faux, faux,” according to the suit. One obvious problem, was that many of the bottles bore tags indicating that they had been recorked at the château between 1979 and 1983. But the logo on the tags was not created until 1988. Based on high-definition photos supplied by Downey, Chevallier levied the same counterfeit verdict against the four bottles of purported Lafite left behind in Atlanta.
According to LeCraw's lawsuit, he's been left with "worthless glass containing unknown liquids." His complaint alleges breach of contract, fraud and violation of racketeering laws, including the federal RICO racketeering statute. It further alleges that Antique Wine Company accepted wines on consignment from LeCraw but still owes him $101,000 for wines that it sold and now refuses to give him an accounting of what prices were paid for those wines. LeCraw is asking for punitive damages of "not less than $25 million."