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Fine whine? Billionaire cries foul in vintage sale

NEW YORK — Super sleuths in the wine business must study the cork, glass, sediment, wrapping, labels and how full a bottle of wine is to ascertain whether it's the real deal. And as two uber-wealthy wine collectors can attest as they square off in federal court over some questionable bottles, even that sometimes is not enough.

Testimony began Wednesday in a civil trial six years after Florida energy maven William Koch, a yachtsman and collector, sued onetime-billionaire California businessman Eric Greenberg in U.S. District Court in Manhattan over $320,000 he spent in 2005 on two dozen bottles of wine that turned out to be duds.

The trial threatens to pop the cork on the dirty secrets of the wine auction world, which like the art market has been stung in recent years by a proliferation of fakes.

At the opening, there was talk of how difficult it is to be sure a bottle is real and how good a fake can be. It's heartbreaking for a true collector to learn that wine is inauthentic because it's more than just a bottle and a flavor, Koch's attorney John Hueston said.

"Koch will say these are links to history," he said, adding that great wines transport people to another era. "It's not just the juice in the package."

Greenberg, a former billionaire who built two Internet consulting companies before the 2000 collapse of those stocks reportedly reduced his net worth by as much as 90 percent, asserted his innocence as he took the stand as one of the trial's first witnesses.

"I wouldn't sell a fake wine," he said. "I've never intentionally sold fake wine in my life."

Koch, the brother of famous industrialists and conservative political supporters David and Charles Koch, is seeking compensation for the $320,000, along with unspecified damages.

Greenberg years ago capitalized on the growing interest in the sale of alcohol for investment purposes, becoming one of the world's top owners of vintage wine with a collection of more than 70,000 bottles.

According to court documents, Greenberg earned about $9 million when he sold 17,000 bottles of wine at the sale where Koch made his purchases, reducing his collection by about a quarter.

Koch was duped by an auction brochure that promised buyers the "greatest wines of all time" and "extremely rare" bottles dating to the early 1800s, Hueston said. Koch paid as much as $30,000 for some bottles.

An investigation revealed Greenberg had been warned by experts that bottles in his collection were not authentic and decided to push them on unwitting buyers at his auction rather than toss them, Hueston said.

Arthur Shartsis, one of Greenberg's lawyers, said a catalog warned buyers the wine was being sold "as is" without any promises as to its authenticity.

Fine whine? Billionaire cries foul in vintage sale 03/27/13 [Last modified: Thursday, March 28, 2013 12:25am]

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