The Wine Trials
Forget the vineyard; when it comes to wine, all the action this spring is in the courtroom. It began today at a federal courthouse in Manhattan, with opening arguments in the case of Koch v. Greenberg (the trial was supposed to start yesterday but was postponed; I assume it was on account of the weather). This is the case that billionaire collector Bill Koch filed six years ago against fellow collector and onetime billionaire Eric Greenberg. Koch alleges that Greenberg knowingly sold him a number of counterfeit wines at a Zachys auction in 2005. I did a long investigative piece for Slate in 2010 looking at the Koch/Greenberg saga and focusing on one bottle in particular, a magnum of 1921 Château Pétrus that Koch bought at the Zachys auction. The 21 Pétrus is a bottle that connects not only Greenberg and Koch, it also links New York’s Royal Wine Merchants, from which Greenberg procured many of his wines, to the infamous Hardy Rodenstock. The Wine Spectator published an excellent rundown of the case yesterday.
Rudy Kurniawan’s name is sure to factor prominently in the Koch v. Greenberg proceedings. Greenberg bought wine from Kurniawan and had frequent dealings with the alleged counterfeiter. It appears the criminal case against Kurniawan is headed for trial, too, presumably sometime in the next few months. Unless Kurniawan, who is being held at the Metropolitan Detention Center in Brooklyn (and, no, he wasn’t given a weekend furlough to attend this year’s La Paulée), has something juicy to offer federal prosecutors—incriminating evidence against, say, an auction house—the government has no incentive to cut a deal with him, and so far as we know, no deal has been cut.
Last week brought more wine-related litigation: The Wine Advocate filed a lawsuit against Antonio Galloni alleging breach of contract and fraud. Galloni, Robert Parker’s onetime heir-apparent, quit The Wine Advocate in February to start his own publication and walked out the door without delivering several reports that he’d been contracted to write on behalf of The Wine Advocate and for which he had been paid, according to the complaint. Instead, he apparently intends to publish the disputed material, which includes tasting notes from Sonoma, Burgundy, Piedmont, and Tuscany, on his site. The lawsuit alleges that Galloni knew when he traveled to these places that he was planning to leave The Wine Advocate and to keep the tasting notes for his own use; yet, he allowed The Wine Advocate to fund his trips (the complaint indicates that he was reimbursed for everything except the Sonoma visit, which took place in January; it doesn’t say whether or not he ever submitted those expenses) and claimed to be representing The Wine Advocate when he was really representing himself.
Over on Wineberserkers, a number of lawyers have been scrutinizing the details of the lawsuit to see if there are loopholes that might allow Galloni to prevail. The complaint includes evidence of shoddy recordkeeping by Parker (in the form of some unexecuted contracts), and it also makes at least one preposterous assertion: it suggests that The Wine Advocate has a proprietary claim to the 100-point scale. Nonetheless, the sharpest corporate lawyer I know says that based on the available information, Galloni has little chance of winning if the case ever goes to trial. It surely won’t go to trial: unless Galloni has a very fat bank account and doesn’t mind being sidetracked for months by litigation, he is going to have to settle, and quickly.
That said, I’d love to hear his side of the story, because maybe it would help me understand why he has acted in such a seemingly self-sabotaging way. He was under contract to do these reports for The Wine Advocate, and even though he quit, it appears he was still obligated to turn them in. Perhaps there’s something in the fine print that might allow him to wiggle out of his responsibility to hand over the tasting notes, but even then, why risk a lawsuit, why court Parker’s wrath? It just makes no sense.
Galloni is almost certainly on the losing end legally, and from a PR standpoint, he has done himself no favors, either. However chagrined he might have been about the sale of The Wine Advocate, which cost him his status as Parker’s designated successor, it seems he was treated exceedingly well by Parker. According to the lawsuit, Parker paid him $300,000 each of the last two years, and also gave him a monthly budget of nearly $6000. That’s Condé Nast money (I’m surprised there wasn’t a Town Car included) and was surely far in excess of what Parker needed to pay to retain Galloni’s services. Galloni claims he quit The Wine Advocate because he didn’t want to be an employee. Fair enough, but his decision to stiff The Wine Advocate on the reports that he was contracted to write was foolish, and when you factor in the generosity that Parker showed him, his behavior looks pretty shabby. Indeed, Galloni has managed to achieve something that didn’t seem possible: he’s cast Parker in a sympathetic light (and yes, that’s a pig hovering over your house). I watch a lot of soccer, and I’d have to say that this is one of the more bizarre own goals I’ve ever seen.