NEW YORK — As experts can testify, 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 tell you 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 Silicon Valley 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 plenty of 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. The trial may yet end in a settlement.
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, including several purported to be from the 1800s. Those included a $22,542 bottle of Chateau Lafite Rothschild from 1805, a $29,172 bottle of Chateau Lafite Rothschild from 1811 and a $33,150 magnum of Chateau Lafite Rothschild from 1870. The oldest bottles are no longer part of the court case.
Unscrupulous wine dealers have been known to put fine-vintage labels on cheaper bottles and try to pass them off as the real thing. Greenberg is not alleged to have done that himself, but Koch's lawyers say he should have known something was amiss.
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