In 1987, German wine merchant Hardy Rodenstock electrified the wine world when he claimed to have discovered a cache of 18th-century wines once owned by Thomas Jefferson. He shared the wines with collectors, and sold some of them for a fortune. The story, however, proved too good to be true, and soon lawsuits were filed against him claiming the bottles were fraudulent.
In 2006, I was writing a story about Bill Koch, one of the wealthy collectors who had purchased some of the so-called Jefferson bottles and wanted retribution. I reached out to Rodenstock for comment. Late at night, I received an angry fax. "These accusations are nonsense … Mr. Koch's people have been threatening and intimidating people in Germany to lie about me. He knows nothing about wine. Only fools would believe him."
I never spoke directly with Rodenstock, but his faxes showed up, sometimes unsolicited, for several years. They were always packed with vitriol, but they never contained any evidence of his innocence. To the end, he remained a mystery on the other end of the line.
According to German newspapers, Rodenstock died May 19 in the town of Oberaudorf after a long illness. He was 76.
His origin was just as mysterious. Born Meinhard Goerke, he had changed his name while managing German pop acts in the 1970s. He was sharp and he was a showman. He became obsessed with wine around the same time, eventually making it his profession. Within a decade, he was the biggest name in rare wine.
Starting around 1980, Rodenstock began hosting bacchanalian wine dinners. Winemakers, journalists, wealthy collectors and celebrities attended for the chance to try his incredible finds. His favorites were from the 19th century—he argued that pre-phylloxera wines were superior.
Doubts were quietly raised from the beginning. After Rodenstock served imperials of Pétrus from 1934, 1928, 1926, 1924 and 1921, Christian Moueix, whose family owns the property, told Wine Spectator, "It's hard to believe [those bottles] ever existed."
Rodenstock countered, "Just because a château does not have records to verify these rare bottles doesn't mean they don't exist."
And he had a point: Most winery owners in the 18th and 19th centuries did not keep meticulous records because they didn't foresee their wines being auctioned for thousands of dollars some day. Multiple merchants bought wine by the barrel and bottled it themselves, meaning labels varied.
And the dirty secret is, wine lovers wanted them to be real. The idea that you could taste a wine that had lived more than a century was beguiling.
So when Rodenstock proclaimed he had found 18th-century Bordeaux, inscribed with the initials Th. J., people wanted to believe him. Christie's sold the first bottle, allegedly a 1787 Lafite, for $175,000, stating in its catalog that the evidence suggested it had belonged to the author of the Declaration of Independence.
Jefferson experts at Monticello raised serious doubts, but many ignored the warnings. It would take two decades for someone to truly challenge Rodenstock. When Koch, an energy executive and collector who had bought four of the bottles in 1988, found out later that there were authenticity questions, he filed a lawsuit against Rodenstock in federal court in 2006. He dispatched investigators to Germany to dig into Rodenstock's past. They found that Rodenstock had been sued there by past clients.
Eventually, a judge ruled against Rodenstock in absentia, but he never paid a cent, claiming the court had no jurisdiction over him. And he never faced criminal charges. Even though his reputation was in tatters, Rodenstock continued to host wine dinners, for a fee.
Surprisingly, many people did not learn from Rodenstock's fall. Too many merchants continued to offer suspect bottles. It wasn't until the FBI sent agents to knock on Rudy Kurniawan's door, charging him with counterfeiting, that practices truly began to change.
Have we learned our lesson? You don't see many fairy-tale wines at auction anymore, and producers have become more vigilant about protecting their brands. We're a little older and a little wiser. But as long as wine has value beyond the price of the grapes that go into it, it will be a tempting target for con men. Rodenstock was not the first to realize that. He won't be the last.