Log In / Join Now

Atlanta Wine Collector Accuses London Merchant of Selling Fakes; Sues for $25 Million

Julian LeCraw Jr. says Antique Wine Company sold him a faux Château d'Yquem 1787

Peter Hellman
Posted: April 22, 2014

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."

Donald C Young
Des Moines,Iowa,USA —  April 22, 2014 12:00pm ET
As many have said, Koch's problem was just the tip of the iceberg. Stick with buying on release and cellaring wines yourself and you won't have this problem. I am very hesitant to buy anything at auction anymore .
Christopher Field
Wheaton IL —  April 22, 2014 12:24pm ET
If these allegations are true it is probably only the tip of a much bigger fraud on buyers who placed their trust in the integrity of this merchant.

One would hope the firm is shut down and the principals receive a term in prison if indeed they have acted as aledged.

Dr Richard S Voss
USA —  April 22, 2014 12:35pm ET
I don't think LeCraw purchased the bottles at auction. Sure, auctions aren't absolutely reliable, but I would guess that they're significantly more reliable than direct purchases from a supposed third-party supplier. Beyond that, what surprises me is the presence of certain signs of falsification that should have been visible to LeCraw upon receipt, such as computer-generated labels. Moreover, at such an expense, why didn't LeCraw use an independent consultant to confirm the authenticity of the bottles before paying for them? Clearly, it was feasible after the fact.
Richard Madison
USA —  April 22, 2014 1:05pm ET
Very Very disheartening.
Greg Dunbar
Seattle, WA —  April 22, 2014 1:16pm ET
I agree with Dr. Voss, particularly his last two sentences. Something smells, and I doubt it's cork taint.
Alberto Truzzi
Poggio Rusco - Italy —  April 22, 2014 1:37pm ET
The compensation for punitive damages should be an example to advice fake ancient wines "producers" and dealers they'd better quit.
Anyway Mr. LeCraw should have better paid the degree of attention and care buys of that kind would have requested.
Were those investments made just to keep and hold or to open up sometimes the precious bottles?
For a sincere and pragmatic wine lover (everything is important but the tasting is the most) any of the two answers is not so easy to be deeply understood.
Brian Adams
Glenview, IL —  April 22, 2014 2:45pm ET
Mr. LeCraw should have paid more attention to the pre-buy details. Seems to me a second professional opinion or two might have identified these flaws early on - or at least raised enough red flags to warrant further investigation. I can't imagine paying those prices without some basic due diligence in place.
Aldo Napoleone
Canaa —  April 22, 2014 3:13pm ET
I have two words for this buyer... DUE DILIGENCE!!

If someone is going to make this kind of an investment in collectables, the wise course would be to do your homework... "Buyer beware".

David Allen
Lufkin,Texas ,USA —  April 22, 2014 3:14pm ET
Good story . A reminder they are fakes In buying wine and
Will live with it. Had in my career of drinking only 3 bottles
Fail so I feel very lucky. Bottles I personally brought back
From France all drinking Fantastic . So feel pretty confident
In my collection .
Errol R Kovitch
Rochester Hills, MI —  April 22, 2014 5:20pm ET
Don, I am afraid that I wasn't old enough to have purchased many wines from the late 1700s on release.

Re: the comments on Due Diligence, if you are rich enough to be able to afford these wines you don't have the time to spend to make yourself an expert, you hire others to do so. Antique Wine Company has been a trusted source of fine wines. Mr. LeCraw (sounds like an evil villain from a 007 movie), paid a premium to buy the wine from them. I hope that this ruins their reputation and puts them out of business.
Jeremy Matouk
Port of Spain, Trinidad —  April 22, 2014 9:45pm ET
Yet another case of too much money, too much ego and too much greed getting involved in wine for all the wrong reasons. It's hard to feel sorry for these players, especially the buyers. As for the sellers, they are there to prey on the vices of too much money, too much ego and too much greed.
I think Wine Spectator should put all these stories of fake old wine that costs so much in a section called "Sucker's Corner". It's not at all interesting to the average wine lover. We like to enjoy and celebrate life, not read about fools and their money being parted.
Suzanne Mustacich
Bordeaux, France —  April 23, 2014 6:57am ET
Maybe I'm just naturally suspicious, being a journalist and all, but I would never buy an 18th or 19th century Bordeaux First Growth from an intermediary without having asked the chateau to authenticate the wine.

Jeffrey D Travis
Sarasota, FL —  April 23, 2014 10:36am ET
Perhaps my chronology is incorrect, but it seems like Mr. LeCraw was purchasing his expensive wines prior to the notoriety from the Koch lawsuits and the Rudy Kurniawan fraud coverage. Reader hindsight is pretty good these days as well as the generous criticism of wealthy wine buyers who dare complain.
Eric Hall
Healdsburg, CA —  April 23, 2014 1:04pm ET
$25 Million for a $90K purchase 8 years ago?

I wish I could have asked that much back for the house I bought in 2006, that went underwater!

Roadhouse Winery
Troy Peterson
Burbank, CA —  April 23, 2014 1:17pm ET
I've done business with Poppy Davis from Heritage and Kirk Baierlein from Chai. These are two organizations I highly respect and if their folks say something is fake, it's fake. If AWC had any sense at any level in their organization they would have gladly offered to take the bottles in question back, no questions asked. When you're dealing with this kind of a purchase there is no "caveat emptor". If you sell me a Lamborghini and what arrives at my door is a fake, I'm assuming you know you'll be taking it back or I'll sue you into the seventh level of Hell. Why wouldn't AWC stand by its reputation? Stop harping on Mr. LeCraw.
Francesco Marini Clarelli
Milan, Italy —  April 23, 2014 1:39pm ET
I cannot believe for a second that anyone would buy a 19th century Lafite or Yquem in modern bordelaises bottles with "computer generated" labels without becoming suspicious. I also cannot believe for a second that a famous and established merchant specializing in old wine would bet his business on fake bottles that would not survive the simplest of due diligences.
I think that somebody is twisting somebody's arm here....
Kamal Malik
Male' Maldives —  April 24, 2014 12:08am ET
Its surprising. Why would you even buy such an old lafite. It would be surely undrinkable and i cannot imagine any "other" worth in a wine bottle which has past its best. I wonder why people pay crazy prices for these.
James Nelson
Toms river, nj, usa —  April 24, 2014 12:33pm ET
If this is a wide spread problem then my purchases at a Florida mail order liquor store must be pure "luck of the draw". How would a buyer really really know?
While a small fraction of this articles total dollar amount; It is enough to warrant concern on my part now.
$40/bottle for a case is still money in my eyes.
Makes me wonder.....

Would you like to comment? Want to join or start a discussion?

Become a WineSpectator.com member and you can!
To protect the quality of our conversations, only members may submit comments. Member benefits include access to more than 315,000 reviews in our Wine Ratings Search; a first look at ratings in our Insider, Advance and Tasting Highlights; Value Wines; the Personal Wine List/My Cellar tool, hundreds of wine-friendly recipes and more.

WineRatings+ app: Download now for 340,000+ ratings.