Maybe a case of Château Lafake

06 April, 2007

Would you pay £105,000 for a bottle of wine? That was the sum the late American publishing mogul, Malcolm Forbes, famously handed over at a Christie's auction on Dec 5 1985 for a bottle of 1787 Château Lafitte (sic). The bid his son, Christopher, made on his behalf remains a world record.

If that sounds like a lot, even for a pre-French Revolution claret from a legendary property, then it's worth remembering that the bottle, engraved with the inscription, "Th. J.", once belonged to the third president of the United States, the wine-loving Thomas Jefferson. Or at least that was what many people believed.

Now, with the news that billionaire American collector Bill Koch, who owns four bottles from the same "Jefferson collection", has filed a New York lawsuit against German wine merchant Hardy Rodenstock, who claimed to have discovered the wines in a bricked-up Paris cellar, the provenance and authenticity of that 1787 Lafit te is in serious doubt.

David Molyneux-Berry MW, who has been advising Koch for two years and is a former director of Sotheby's wine department, is convinced the Jefferson cellar is a hoax. "We are sure that the wines, whether they be labelled Yquem, Margaux, Branne-Mouton or Lafitte are fakes," he says.

What makes him so sure? Molyneux-Berry says the hoax's fatal flaw is not the wine in the 1787 Lafitte, but the engraving on the front of it. He says there are other question marks hanging over the wine - such as the fact that Jefferson was a meticulous keeper of records, yet never mentioned the Lafitte in his notes, or that he does not appear to have owned any other engraved bottles - and the court case may eventually turn on a pair of full stops.

In the 18th century, the only way to engrave a bottle was with a wheel. "It was a very skilful and time-consuming job, but the person operating the wheel could only cut in a line. You can't make a full stop or a dot with a cutting wheel. You can only do that with a flexible head - effectively a high speed dentist's drill," he says. In other words, the engraving is at least 100 years younger than has been claimed and may be considerably more recent.

If the bottle - not to mention the rest of the cellar - is fake, what does this mean for the high profile Rodenstock? According to a lengthy article in the German magazine Stern - which, in a deliciously ironic twist, was the publication that paid millions for the "Hitler diaries" in 1983 - Rodenstock appears to be trying to pass the buck. "Perhaps some bottles were authentic and others not. Perhaps I too was deceived."

He may be telling the truth, but he has always been extremely tight-lipped about where the Jefferson wines came from and how many of them there were. Surely the best way to prove his innocence - if not necessarily the authenticity of all the wines - would be to reveal how he came across them in the first place.

Like the forged Hitler diaries, there may be several levels of deception at work here. As Robert Harris writes in his excellent book about the subject, Selling Hitler: "The Hitler diaries project was less than one month old but already it had at least three layers of mendacity. Kujau (the forger) was deceiving Heidemann (the Stern journalist who broke the story); Heidemann was deceiving Kujau and the management of Gruner & Jahr (publishers of Stern); and the management of Gruner & Jahr was deceiving the editors of Stern. Deception ramifies into self-deception for both victim and deceiver, as well as into collusion in denial of the deceit."

In the wider world, what does this mean for the auction houses and fine and rare wine merchants generally? For a start, it leaves Christie's (which is co-operating fully with the American investigation) with a substantial quantity of scrambled egg on its corporate chin. But it also calls into question the authenticity of other collectable bottles. How much checking is done before these wines are sold or auctioned to the general public? Molyneux-Berry is not alone in suspecting that the Jefferson cellar is the tip of a very grubby iceberg. Wine does not fetch the same sort of prices as fine art, which may be why fakes are still comparatively rare but, for an engraver armed with a dentist's drill, £105,000 represents a very good day's work.

Undiscovered Italy adds diversity in a world of safe choices

I've just spent three days trying to come to terms with the sheer scale of Vinitaly, the annual Verona-based trade fair dedicated to Italian wines. This was the 41st edition of the event, but it was bigger than ever, with 12 halls, three large tents, 4,300 exhibitors and enough Pinot Grigio to fill every municipal swimming pool in the UK.

The best thing about the fair - apart from the chance to try the 2001 Brunello Riservas, the 2005 Chianti Classicos and the last remaining 2001 Barolos - was the opportunity to sample wines made from grapes I'd never heard of. You familiar with Caricante, Pallagrello, Cas avecchia or Fenile? I wasn't either.

More than any other country in the world, Italy is undiscovered territory for most wine drinkers and even most wine professionals. You could put together a very good Italian list from scratch in the course of Vinitaly, which is why it was great to see so many UK buyers in attendance. In a world dominated by safe choices, we need the diversity of Italian wine more than ever.

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