On January 8, 2024, former German soccer player and coach Franz Anton Beckenbauer passed after a long illness. He was 78. I had been trying to convince him to sit down with me for the past decade, speaking through intermediaries and lawyers. I was not that interested in his achievements on the pitch – though they were many and formidable. I was more interested in his experiences as a wine aficionado, especially in his dealings with an international wine counterfeiter named Hardy Rodenstock. 

Rodenstock was born Meinhard Goerke in what used to be Prussia, but he changed his awkward sounding name to Hardy Rodenstock, adopting the surname of a wealthy German industrial family. He started out as a clerk for the German railroad but reinvented himself, first as a music pitchman and then as a rare wine salesman, pushing collectibles at a time when Germany’s economy was flush with money. Though Rodenstock spoke little French, (misspellings on the labels he created made that clear) he claimed to have had an unlimited supply of rare First Growth Bordeaux wines.  

Hardy’s English, according to one London wine merchant who sold his concoctions, was reminiscent of Mike Meyers’ man of mystery Austin Powers. Phrases like “groovy” and “baby” were part of his shtick. I laughed when I first heard that description because it conjured up an image of the photo of Hardy, looking like he’d stepped off a Sgt. Pepper cover, sitting with German television food celebrity Mario Schauerman, holding court at Neuschweinstein Castle. (How he managed to get a permit to hold a wine dinner inside a national landmark is an open question.) 

I do not know who introduced Hardy to Germany’s most famous soccer player. He had a gift for networking among Munich’s chic crowd. But Beckenbauer, known as “the Kaiser” in the sporting press, was a frequent visitor at many Rodenstock wine tastings. Beckenbauer’s appearance lent an air of legitimacy to Hardy’s elaborate confidence game.  There is an iconic image of Beckenbauer, opening what was alleged to be an 18th century bottle of wine engraved with the initials of Thomas Jefferson. Standing next to Beckenbauer at this dinner was the late Michael Broadbent, the former head of Christie’s Wine Department, and longtime Rodenstock enabler. With Beckenbauer and Broadbent attending the event, chances of anyone questioning the provenance of the wines being served were highly unlikely, as Rodenstock undoubtedly understood.  

Franz Beckenbauer uncorking a fake bottle of Bordeaux
Franz Beckenbauer opening a fake bottle of Thomas Jefferson wine

There was one problem with Hardy’s illusion, but there would have to be an expert in the room to notice – the engraving on the wine bottle.  Almost three decades later, a pair of glass engravers from the state of Hesse came forward and confessed to etching Jefferson’s initials on the “Jefferson” bottle served that night, as well as other bottles that Hardy sold to collectors around the world. It would have been obvious, they told an Austrian court, to anyone who knew what an electric toolmark looked like. 

I approached Beckenbauer after Hardy passed. His representatives said that he had fallen out with Hardy and wished to have nothing to do with him. I don’t know when, or why, that happened. I wonder if he, like other wealthy wine collectors, purchased some of Hardy’s handiwork and wished to avoid being publicly revealed as a mark. Whatever his reason, Franz Beckenbauer was one of many people drawn to Rodenstock’s orbit, among them wealthy businessmen and women, wine collectors, girlfriends, musicians, and ex-wives, all who ended up feeling betrayed by him.  His counterfeit bottles, however,  continue to fill the shelves of wine cellars everywhere.