Would You Know a Fake Wine If You Tasted It?

The second in a two-part series on wine fraud.

“I’VE NEVER DONE this before. I don’t think anyone has done this before,” said Bill Koch as we sat down to taste 10 Burgundies and Bordeaux pulled from his cellar. Mr. Koch is certainly accustomed to tasting rare wines, but in this case, five bottles were authentic, five were counterfeit. He’d paid a total of $56,351.85 for them, though the collective amount would be much greater today. In the end, however, the fakes cost him even more dearly.

Mr. Koch is the Palm Beach, Fla., billionaire and brother of the political activists Charles and David Koch of Koch Industries (of which Bill Koch has no part today). He famously spent some $40 million on legal fees and multi-year investigations into the problem of wine fraud. According to Brad Goldstein, an investigative consultant who led Mr. Koch’s wine-fraud investigation team, Mr. Koch has won multiple civil suits and settlements from wine counterfeiters as well as auction houses and other collectors from whom he unwittingly purchased counterfeit wines.

It took a large team of experts that included former FBI, CIA and MI6 agents, chemists, forensic scientists and an inspector from Scotland Yard to uncover the breadth and depth of the fraud. Mr. Koch spent far more than he’s received in judgments and settlements, but for him, it’s the principle that matters. “I hate to be cheated,” he said.

We ended up tasting wine together thanks to a conversation I’d had with Mr. Goldstein. When I mentioned, half joking, that I’d love to know what a counterfeit Pétrus tastes like, Mr. Goldstein replied, “I’ll ask Bill.” A few days later, I was on a plane to Palm Beach.

Mr. Koch met me in the foyer of his house. “Palatial” doesn’t capture the scope of the 45,000-square-foot dwelling, just as “extraordinary” doesn’t begin to describe his art collection, which includes works by Picasso and Monet. We repaired to his cellar, which held around 44,000 bottles until Mr. Koch sold half at auction at Sotheby’s two years ago for $21.9 million. It was one of the biggest wine-auction totals in history, and all the wines had been carefully vetted by Mr. Koch’s investigative team beforehand.

Two employees rushed around, consulting lists, climbing ladders, pulling bottles with world-famous names: Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, Château Pétrus, Château La Mission Haut-Brion and even a 1787 Château Lafitte said to be signed by Thomas Jefferson. “It’s fake, of course,” said Mr. Koch in a tone of remarkable nonchalance. (A 2008 book, “The Billionaire’s Vinegar” by Benjamin Wallace, offers a fascinating account of the investigation of this wine.) Half the bottles on the table were counterfeits—though they fetched top dollar at auction before Mr. Koch found this out.

We walked through the cellar to a basement room where he stored many of his fake wines. There were boxes labeled “ Rudy Kurniawan Investigation Wines” or simply “Investigation Wines.” Some of these were evidence Mr. Koch presented in court in New York when Mr. Kurniawan was convicted of wine counterfeiting in 2014.

Mr. Koch has discovered around 440 counterfeit bottles in his collection to date, and he allowed that there “might be even more.” He recalled one of his earliest fake-wine encounters: a 1921 Château Pétrus. “ Robert Parker gave the wine 100 out of 100 points,” he said, referring to wine critic Robert M. Parker, Jr. Mr. Koch had to have the wine. He paid $33,150.63 for a magnum. When he opened the magnum at a dinner with friends, he found it did not match Mr. Parker’s description. “It tasted like the cheapest wine from California,” he said. “It tasted like moose piss.” (That’s a favorite Koch term for a really bad wine.) He made it his mission to find out if his bottle was, in fact, a fake, and how many other fakes might be lurking in his collection.

Craig Stapleton, a friend of Mr. Koch’s and the former American ambassador to France, appeared in the cellar. “I’m here to taste fake wines,” he declared. After all, Mr. Stapleton reasoned, he’d had a lot of great real wine thanks to Mr. Koch—a famously generous host. Like me, he was curious to see how the fakes measured up.

Since Mr. Stapleton had only a short time before he had to leave for New York, Mr. Koch winnowed the wines we would taste to 10—five superstars and five counterfeits thereof: 1950 Château Pétrus, 1971 Domaine de la Romanée-Conti Romanée-Conti, 1945 Château Lafite Rothschild, 1959 Château La Mission Haut-Brion and 1978 Domaine de la Romanée-Conti La Tâche.

He paid $33,150.63 for a magnum. “It tasted like moose piss,” he said.


We carried the bottles upstairs and onto the terrace, where glasses and a Coravin wine opener waited on a table. “I’m an investor in Coravin,” said Mr. Stapleton with obvious pleasure. The device allows drinkers to access wine by means of a hollow needle inserted into the cork. Once the needle’s removed, the cork closes up, so a bottle that has been “Coravin-ed” (yes, that’s a verb) remains protected from oxidation for days, weeks, even months. Mr. Koch affixed blue tape to each of the fakes and Coravin-ed the first pair of wines, the real and the fake 1971 Domaine de la Romanée-Conti Romanée-Conti.

The faked DRC was a “Rudy” wine, Mr. Goldstein observed, referring to the counterfeiter Mr. Kurniawan. It was markedly cloudier than its real counterpart and smelled and tasted like dirt. The real wine, on the other hand, had a lovely, earthy nose and surprisingly fresh acidity. “All the crooks said, ‘You can’t tell if it’s real until you taste it.’ We said, ‘If the cork is fake and the label is fake and the bottle is fake, it’s fake,’ ” Mr. Koch recalled with a small flash of anger.

The counterfeit 1959 Château La Mission Haut-Brion, we discovered, was corked. Mr. Goldstein explained that counterfeiters often insert corked wines into old bottles, wagering that this subterfuge will prevent purchasers from considering whether the wine might also be fake—they might simply presume they’d had the bad luck to buy a bottle that turned out to be corked and leave it at that. The real 1959 was in pretty good shape. Both the real and the fake 1978 DRC La Tâche wines showed well; the latter was actually credible, we all agreed. In fact, the nose of the fake was even fresher than that of the real wine. “Maybe they put in a newer wine?” posited Mr. Goldstein.

The fake 1945 Lafite Rothschild, meanwhile, was terrible, bitter and astringent. It smelled like varnish, not wine. Its authentic counterpart was a bit of a faded rose, but it was clearly a noble old Bordeaux. The 1950 Château Pétrus wines, real and fake, were the big surprise. Both were quite good, earthy and rich with surprisingly lively acidity. “This [fake] was made by Hardy,” said Mr. Goldstein. He was referring to Hardy Rodenstock, against whom Mr. Koch won a default judgment in a federal court in New York in 2012 for the sale of counterfeit wine. “From a mixology perspective he was really good. His handicraft was much better than Rudy’s,” Mr. Goldstein added. In fact, it was hard to tell the two wines apart.

With fakes this good in circulation, clearly additional precautions and coordinated documentation efforts are called for. For those who suspect that they, too, might have counterfeit wines in their cellars, Mr. Koch is considering the creation of a database, available free to the public, of information on counterfeit wines. It would be the first of its kind, said Mr. Goldstein.

After my return from Palm Beach, I couldn’t stop thinking about the highly competent counterfeit Pétrus. Was it good or bad news for collectors who might own fake wines? I wasn’t sure. Of course, one can’t count on just any fake being so drinkable. And most importantly, as Mr. Koch pointed out, nobody likes to be cheated—even with a good fake Pétrus.

It’s complicated,

I need help.