The London-based wine dealer being sued for $25 million by an Atlanta collector for allegedly selling 15 bottles of counterfeit rare old Bordeaux has fired back, issuing a statement defending the provenance of the wines. But some of the Bordeaux sources cited in the statement disputed the conclusions in interviews with Wine Spectator. And none would verify that the bottles in question are real.
"The Antique Wine Company finds it necessary to emphasize that it duly researched the provenance of the wines it supplied and fully disclosed that information to Julian LeCraw Jr. at the time of his various purchases," said Stephen Williams, founder and managing director of the wine merchant. The company, which has offices in London and Hong Kong, has represented its staff as experts on authentication of rare old wines.
An Atlanta real-estate investor, LeCraw Jr. filed suit in a federal court in April, alleging fraud, breach of contract and other charges against the Antique Wine Company (AWC), claiming that it sold him 15 bottles of counterfeit wine—including 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.
The lawsuit also charges that Williams' company refuses to give LeCraw an accounting of as much as $3 million of his wine that AWC agreed to sell on consignment. AWC denies the allegations and says only that it owes LeCraw $101,000 for some of that wine.
According to Williams, the 1787 Yquem, purchased by LeCraw for $91,400, including insurance, was recorked at Yquem in 1980 and again in 1994, at which time Count Alexandre de Lur Saluces, then the proprietor, signed an "authenticity ticket," and gave some details on what the château knew about its previous ownership.
But his signature on the ticket, Lur Saluces told Wine Spectator, was not an endorsement of the wine's authenticity. "I signed it the way people sometimes sign a menu or a post card," he said. "I cannot confirm that this bottle is ancient. I simply put a signature on it. It is out of the question that I could identify it as authentic." Lur Saluces, 79, left Yquem in 2004 and now makes wine at his family’s Château de Fargues, also in Sauternes.
As for the bottle of 1847 Yquem, Williams said the entire 1847 vintage of Yquem was purchased by Cruse, a leading Bordeaux négociant that closed 40 years ago. The Cruse family remains active in Bordeaux as owners and managers of several châteaus. The Imperial House of Romanov in St. Petersburg acquired the majority of Yquem’s 1847 production, according to Williams, citing information provided by Lur Saluces and the late Lionel Cruse. The bottle sold to LeCraw "is an exact match to two bottles that remain in the cellars of the Cruse family in Bordeaux," according to Williams.
But Lionel’s son Emmanuel, owner of Château d’Issan in Margaux, told Wine Spectator that neither his own cellar, nor those of his father or grandmother, contain any bottles of Yquem. "Maybe in the past we had these bottles of Yquem in our private cellar, but I've been in the wine business since 1993 and never heard of them. Such old bottles, I would definitely remember!"
In his complaint, LeCraw says that on March 19 the two bottles labeled as Yquem were inspected at the château by the current managing team and declared counterfeit. Maître de chai Sandrine Garbay said that the labels on both bottles were photocopies and the corks were too short. "We had a lot of doubts about those bottles," she told Wine Spectator.
Williams disputes LeCraw's assertion that recorking labels dated between 1979 and 1983 on the 12 bottles of Lafite Rothschild are fake because they use a logo the château did not adopt until 1988. "The management of Chateau Lafite Rothschild have confirmed to the Antique Wine Company that the 'five arrows logo was used by DBR at that time [prior to 1988].'"
The logo that Williams references, however, is not the same as the one on LeCraw's bottles, according to Shea Sullivan, LeCraw's lawyer. That logo was registered with the U.S. Trademark office in 1993 in a filing that states its first commercial use was in 1989.
Charles Chevallier, director of Domaines Barons de Rothschild, did not respond to requests for comment. According to LeCraw's complaint, Chevallier examined eight of the suspect bottles in March and declared them, "Faux, faux, faux."
Williams and AWC would seem to face an uphill battle if they attempt to challenge the counterfeit verdicts by the two Bordeaux châteaus. But Williams’ U.S. lawyer, Arthur Shartsis, suggests that the issue is not whether the bottles are counterfeit, but whether his client’s "standard of care" in researching the provenance of the bottles was in keeping with industry practices in an era before wine counterfeiting became a hot-button issue. (Shartsis knows the debate over counterfeit collectible wines well, having unsuccessfully defended wine collector Eric Greenberg from a lawsuit by Bill Koch last year.)
"If a patient dies on the operating table, and the doctor gets sued for malpractice, the question is whether his standard of care was the same as practiced by others in the community schooled in the same art," said Shartsis. "As of now, it looks to me like Williams appears to have met the same standard of care that was exercised by others at that time. If so, you’re certainly not talking about a fraud."
Responding to that claim, Sullivan, said, "We have alleged that my client has been defrauded. Fraud is not standard of care."