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Wine scandals: The Jefferson Bottles

Jefferson is regarded by historians and oenophiles alike as the world’s first eminent connoisseur. On his diplomatic missions to France, he fell in love with European wine. Until then, his exposure had been to the Portugese and Spanish fortified varieties favoured by the English. The wines of France were a new phenomenon entirely, and inspired the American polymath to open his pocketbook. During his first term as President, Jefferson spent the equivalent one hundred twenty thousand modern dollars on wine alone. (Occasionally, he would order a case for his friend George Washington.)

In 1985, Christie’s in London auctioned off a green bottle engraved with “Lafitte” and the initials “Th.J.” The catalogue stated that, based on available evidence, the bottle came from a collection owned by none other than Thomas Jefferson.

It sold to Bill Koch, one of America’s richest men, for one hundred fifty-seven thousand dollars.

Other prominent collectors began scooping up bottles from the collection. Before long, bottles of Jeffersonian wine were gracing the world’s most well-stocked, well-funded cellars. No-one questioned the provenance of these finds until 2005, when Koch’s collection was being considered for an exhibition at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. When Koch’s staff contacted the Thomas Jefferson Foundation, they discovered that there was no evidence whatsoever that these bottles had ever belonged to Thomas Jefferson.

The discovery sparked off a globe-spanning investigation funded by Koch out of his own pocket. The origin of the Jefferson bottle was traced to a colorful German wine collector named Hardy Rodenstock.

Rodenstock had been a fixture in the world of fine wine since 1980, when he began holding elaborate tastings of some the world’s rarest finds. Fellow collectors knew him as someone who would often discover - and resell - extremely rare vintages, or wines whose provenance intersected with history in interested ways (such as bottles from the cellar of the last Russian Tsar.)

He was the one who claimed to have received a phone call from a Parisian source, who then sold him the Thomas Jefferson bottles. Rodenstock, when questioned, would not reveal the name of the source or the location where the bottles were discovered. In interviews, he would claim to have found anywhere from one dozen to thirty bottles of the rare wine.

Rodenstock’s history was already spotty. In 1992, a collector purchased a Jefferson bottle from him. When he tried to resell it at Christie’s, Rodenstock intervened, claiming that he had originally sold the bottle on the condition that it would not be resold. The buyer did not recall any such stipulations. He had the bottle forensically analyzed, and discovered that the contents - whose vintage allegedly dated back to the 18th century - had been produced at some point after 1962. He sued Rodenstock; a German court found Rodenstock guilty; Rodenstock countersued; and, eventually, the two settled out of court.

Early on in Koch’s investigation, he learned that Hardy Rodenstock’s name was not his real name, and that he did not come from (as he claimed) a wealthy German family. He had actually been born Meinhard Görke, and was the son of a railyard worker. He also claimed to have once been a professor, without ever providing evidence in the form of credentials. 

Further, he had close connections with Michael Broadbent, internationally renowned wine critic and head of Christie’s wine department. Broadbent is known for his tasting notes for rare and extremely old wines. Much of his access to these wines - including most of those from the 18th century - came via Rodenstock. A great deal of his work, Broadbent wrote in one of his books, came about only as a result of Rodenstock’s “immense generosity.”

Koch’s investigators discovered that, even as far back as the 1985, there were questions about the Jefferson wine’s authenticity. Broadbent had approached the Thomas Jefferson Foundation and learned what they already knew: That there was absolutely no evidence to back up claims that the wine once belonged to Jefferson.

Broadbent’s problem now was that he had certified much of Rodenstock’s rarest stock. Rodenstock, in turn, owed much of his reputation (and his profits) from Broadbent’s certifications.

But evidence against Rodenstock continued to accumulate. In the late ‘90s, a pair of collectors had raised concerns about the provenance of some other bottles Rodenstock had sold which, according to the historical records, was inconsistent with the size of bottles actually produced by the winemaker in question. And Koch’s team had consulted with experts to learn that the engraving on the Jefferson bottles was in the style of that done by an electric dremel rather than an 18th century tool.

Koch filed a civil lawsuit against Rodenstock in 2006. Rodenstock refused to participate, citing the fact that Koch had not bought the bottles directly from him, but via third parties. He also claimed he could not be charged in an American court because he was a German citizen. Rodenstock was never charged.

Scientific techniques like those used in the case of the Jefferson bottles can be used to root out fakes, but not all collectors may want to use them. After all, once you’ve spent thousands of dollars on a rare bottle, and showed it off to all of your friends, do you really feel like having its value demoted to zero? 

Bill Koch, at least, is glad to have gotten to the bottle of the matter. Given widespread coverage of the story, his bottles now have celebrity status. When he shows off his cellar to guests, he likes to brag about owning the Thomas Jefferson fakes.

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