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The fake wine scandal

The fraud case involving prestigious UK wine retailer Antique Wine Company has left the wine world in shock

THE GLOBAL wine industry has been rocked by a sensational scandal that originated in America but involves one of London?s most prestigious wine merchants. Atlanta wine collector Julian LeCraw Jr has filed a case against a London wine merchant for more than $25 million, alleging that the dealer sold him 15 bottles of fake rare Bordeauxs ranging from 1787 to 1908. LeCraw filed the suit on April 17 in a federal court in Atlanta accusing UK wine retailer Antique Wine Company and its founder and CEO Stephen Williams of fraud and racketeering.

Antique Wine Company represents itself as a top source for rare wines and claims that its staff are experts on the authenticity of wine. It has offices in London and Hong Kong. According to his complaint, LeCraw began buying wine from the firm a decade ago. In 2006, he made several notable purchases?a bottle of extremely rare Chateau d?Yquem 1787, Yquem 1847, a six-litre bottle of Chateau Margaux 1908 and 12 bottles of Chateau Lafite Rothschild, ranging in vintage from 1784 to 1906. Three of the Lafites were magnums and all are very exclusive and expensive wines. Williams issued several press releases on the 1787 d?Yquem sale, which totalled $91,400, though he kept the buyer?s identity a secret at LeCraw?s request. He stated that he flew the bottle from London to Atlanta personally. ?It might be the most expensive and pampered travelling 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,? he said at the time.

In early 2013, LeCraw says he invited Frank Martell, the 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. She told the client on the spot that the wines at issue were fake. Her report alleges that some of the labels were printed by computer. There were questionable corks, capsules and problems with the shape and colour of the bottles. LeCraw?s lawyer, John 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?.

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Early this year, Sullivan and Downey travelled to Bordeaux with the two bottles of Yquem and eight of the Lafites. According to the complaint, on February 19, a team at Chateau d? Yquem, headed by managing director Pierre Lurton, examined the two bottles of Yquem and pronounced them both counterfeit. Sullivan and Downey then visited Chateau Lafite Rothschild, one of the world?s most prestigious winemakers. 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 chateau 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. It also 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 on accounting of what prices were paid for those wines. LeCraw is asking for punitive damages of ?not less than $25 million?.

Speaking for his client, Sullivan told Wine Spectator, ?This suit is not a case of an itchy trigger finger. I am 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.? On its part, Antique Wine Company has denied the allegations. ?We strongly deny 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.? The sensation caused by the case has left the wine world in shock. For such rare vintages and such prestigious labels to come under suspicion will make wine sellers and buyers doubly cautious, affecting sales, reputations and the lingering fear that any rare vintage you order for a special celebration paying some enormous amount could be nothing but coloured water.

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First published on: 27-04-2014 at 03:25 IST