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Bill Koch Sues Royal Wine Merchants

2011 November 9
by Mike

Having unplugged from the wine fraud issue, I only learned this morning, via a thread on wineberserkers, that Bill Koch filed a lawsuit last month against Royal Wine Merchants. Koch accuses Royal of flooding the wine market with counterfeit bottles and alleges that at least 32 bottles that ended up in his collection and that he now believes are fakes originated with Royal. Koch says he paid a total of $547, 693 for the 32 bottles and is seeking punitive damages.

I wrote a lengthy investigative article for Slate last year about the relationship between Royal, Hardy Rodenstock, and Robert Parker. I also did a follow-up story about a tense dinner that I had a few months later with Jeff Sokolin of Royal, a dinner that featured a trio of rare magnums imported and sold by Royal. From the moment I began investigating Royal, it was my assumption that Koch would eventually sue Sokolin and his partner, Daniel Oliveros. But, of course, he needed a reason to sue them. He has now found a reason—or, to be more precise, he has come up with 32 reasons.

The bottles in question include an 1811 Château Lafite, an 1864 Château Latour, two magnums of 1921 Château Cheval Blanc, and a magnum of 1921 Château Pétrus that Koch purchased in October 2005 at a Zachys auction, the bottle that was at the center of my Slate article. From my quick reading of Koch’s filing, it appears that his case against Royal is completely circumstantial. Based on import records and auction sales, he is claiming that the 32 bottles could only have come from Royal. But he has no direct evidence to support that contention. You can read Koch’s complaint here, and any lawyers among you who wish to comment on its strengths or weaknesses are welcome to do so.

Whatever the legal merits of Koch’s case, I think there is a lot of fatigue with this story. It is now widely accepted that Rodenstock was peddling funny juice and that a significant number of counterfeit rarities were dumped on the market in the 1990s and 2000s. But even among wine geeks, the fraud issue doesn’t seem to resonate much these days. And I suspect that in the court of public opinion (pardon the cliché), it probably elicits only schadenfreude. As I’ve said before, I applaud Koch for his effort to call attention to the problem of fake wines and to punish the perpetrators. But even with Koch’s lawsuit against the so-called “sexy boys”, Sokolin and Oliveros, what was once a very sexy story just doesn’t arouse a lot of passion now.

8 Responses leave one →
  1. Bill Klapp permalink
    November 11, 2011

    Don’t worry, Kurt. None of the Kochs are nice people…

  2. Kurt Burris permalink
    November 10, 2011

    I was going to comment on the justice of a Koch brother getting conned after the con job they, through the Tea Party, are pulling on the populace of the U.S. Well, even if it’s the wrong one, I guess I just did.

  3. Robin C permalink
    November 10, 2011

    If it’s not schadenfreude, it’s freudenschade

  4. November 10, 2011

    Blake, it’s his brothers, David and Charles, who are bankrolling the Tea Party. I don’t know if Bill Koch is also funding it, though I assume his political views lean in that direction.

    Warren, it was an interesting evening, but also a somewhat disorienting one, just given all the doubts about the wines. At any rate, I will definitely keep you in mind if I need some help for any future such tasting!

  5. November 10, 2011

    As Bill Koch’s other major activity is funding the Tea Party, I hope this lawsuit keeps him busy.

  6. Warren permalink
    November 9, 2011

    Mike – just read your story about the dinner with Sokolin and gang. Wow, even with the slight doubt of authenticity, what an evening of wine! If you need an apprentice or personal assistant at the next tasting like that – I’ll work for a few sips. :)

  7. November 9, 2011

    Jack, Thanks for this. That was my impression. It’s hard to see Koch nailing Royal in a court of law on the basis of this filing.

  8. Jack Bulkin permalink
    November 9, 2011

    Mike mucho conjecture and surmise. I assume that the action will prevail at an initial Motion to dismiss filed by the defendants to give them time to conduct adequate discovery to make out a case. It may take more lawyer hours than the actual cost of the wine to merely enable Koch the chance to proceed to trial.

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