It was called the White Club. For an initiation fee of 15,000 euros (about $20,000) and annual dues of about $3,250, members of the Switzerland-based group were promised access to international events at which "grand wines will be shared and not just kept as trophies or investments." Among the rarities shared by members, according to the club's now inactive website, were Dom Perignon Rosé 1959, Domaine de la Romanée-Conti Romanée-Conti 1923, Lafleur 1947, Mouton-Rothschild 1945 and d'Yquem 1921 and 1811.
The White Club now appears to be defunct. But according to wine authentication experts in California and Bordeaux, extensive photographic evidence indicates that in the club's heyday, many bottles poured at its events looked nearly identical. They allege that the club owners refilled the bottles with lesser wine and served them at subsequent club events.
The allegations originally appeared in the Copenhagen-based magazine Gastro, in an article by Danish journalists René Langdahl Jørgensen and André Devald, who enlisted the help of a trio of specialists in detecting counterfeits, Californians Maureen Downey and Don Cornwell, and Bordeaux-based Michael Egan.
The White Club's principals, Maline Meisner and René Dehn, claimed to use the proceeds of member initiation fees to finance a 10,000-bottle wine cellar. But Devald and Langdahl Jørgensen could find no evidence the cellar ever existed. Nor could they find a list of club members.
Instead, the White Club's legacy survives primarily in a photo archive of bottles assembled by Downey, Cornwell and Egan in cooperation with Devald and Langahl Jorgensen (see photo gallery below for a few examples). Dozens of photos show bottles that appear to have been used repeatedly. Some bottles poured at different events bear the same serial number—a bottle of Château Mouton-Rothschild 1945 poured in 2011 bears the number 70,063. A photo of a bottle served a few months later shows an identical number. A bottle of Romanée-Conti 1997, poured in Basel, and another bottle of the same wine, poured in Burgundy, were both marked with serial number 02555.
While a bottle of Pétrus 1970 served in September 2012 had a torn and stained label, a bottle served five months later shows identical marks. In other cases, some bottles poured at later events show new tears or smudges, but the similarities between them and the earlier bottles are numerous.
Neither Meisner nor Dehn, who is thought to be now living in South Africa, could be reached for comment.
Cornwell, Downey and Egan believe that certain iconic bottles poured by the White Club were counterfeit to begin with. They point to a Château Margaux 1900 served during a series of weekend events in Burgundy in December 2012. They allege the bottle matches one poured at an earlier event in Denmark and believe it matches several hundred bottles sold by Khaled Rouba, who was convicted in 2002 by a French court of selling counterfeits.
The investigation started last December when Devald noticed a posting by Cornwell on the website Wine Berserkers regarding the trial of wine counterfeiter Rudy Kurniawan. Hours before his arrest on March 8, 2012, according to evidence introduced by the prosecution, Kurniawan offered to sell five bottles of Henri Jayer Richebourg 1985 to Danish wine broker Weinart.
"This could be an extremely interesting connection to the Danish wine business, so I started digging," Devald told Wine Spectator. "I was quickly pointed in another direction by some sommeliers who pointed me to events in Copenhagen organized by a certain Malene Miesner and her company, the White Club. She and her partner René Dehn organized luxurious dinner tastings, but there were rumors that some of the bottles were fakes."
Examples of Wines at White Club Events
Devald recalled that his colleague Langdahl Jørgensen had written about a 2011 White Club tasting in Switzerland where a Château d'Yquem 1921 tasted like "a skinny rosé without any residual sugar." Devald and Langdahl Jørgensen assumed this was a case of a single fake bottle. But with the assistance of Cornwell and Downey, who trolled the Internet and their own contacts for bottle shots from White Club tastings, it became clear that Meisner and Dehn may have been serving bottles that bore authentic labels but were being refilled.
In a departure from normal practice, the rarest bottles were uncorked in a different room by Dehn, rather than being opened in view of the guests. One participant reports that when he asked to inspect the cork from a bottle of Château Margaux 1900, he was shown a blank cork that appeared to be new.
"Prior diligence tends to go out the window when a bottle of 1937 Romanée-Conti is plonked in front of you," said Stuart George, a London-based wine consultant who worked with Meisner and Dehn. That 1937 Romanée-Conti was among nine DRC wines opened at an April 2013 dinner arranged by George for the White Club at Texture restaurant in London. Almost a year later, George and Michael Egan inspected the empty bottles and judged six of the nine bottles to be "fakes or forgeries."
The 1937 Romanée-Conti matches a bottle served at the White Club's Burgundy weekend the previous December. It had a neck label which read "J. Drouhin." Dehn told participants it came from a case of Romanée-Conti 1937 he had purchased from DRC. According to Aubert de Villaine, co-proprietor of DRC, "we obviously never sold a case with Joseph Drouhin neck labels. There has not been a single bottle of 1937 Romanée-Conti for sale at least since the Second World War."