Bill Koch seen holding the bottle of 1921 Château Pétrus that is at the heart of his claim against Eric Greenberg. Thus far the World's media outlets have unfairly led with his side of the story, although it is a fascinating one.
Just last week (or if you scroll down, just last article) I wrote about the one-sided story that has been the driving force behind the “crusade” against counterfeit wine. The complaints filed by Bill Koch against the likes of Christie’s auction house, Acker Merrall & Condit, Zachys, Michael Broadbent and Eric Greenberg have been the infallible basis for most people’s opinions regarding this issue (to a certain extent they were the basis for mine as well, although with questions). There’s no question that there is a problem with counterfeit wines in the marketplace (that is indisputable), however there is another problem being faced in the same arena. The problem is being presented only one side of the story. This leads to a lot of misinformation that’s put out to the general public. In turn, the public then takes this information, seeing as it comes from supposedly reliable sources, and absorbs it as truth (even if this is not the intended outcome).
I felt compelled to write this piece today, not over something I read in a book or magazine, but rather because of a daily tear-off calendar that adorns the desks of thousands of wine lovers across the country. The What Do You Know About Wine daily calendar adorns my kitchen counter and I typically enjoy the little tidbits it provides. That was until I read the October 22 question and answer.
Q: An esteemed wine writer and connoisseur assigned a magnum of 1921 Pétrus 100 points in 1995, the highest rating possible, pronouncing it “out of this universe.” Why is this significant?
A: According to the people at Château Pétrus, they didn’t make a magnum bottle in 1921, meaning that the bottle was a fake. When asked about the gaffe by The New Yorker magazine, Robert Parker implied that even wine critics make mistakes but insisted that particular bottle of wine was still “wonderful.”
I’m not too worried about Parker’s role in this quote, as he obviously hast a stellar reputation and has gotten to enjoy some awesome juice! My particular issue with this entry is that it possibly conveys a half-truth. The sad reality of the high-end wine market is that it does contain fraudulent bottles of some truly masterful wines. However, just because a historically significant bottle surfaces does not mean that it’s fake, even if the chateau says it did not use that bottle format at the time (a magnum = two bottles of wine or 1.5L).
The example in the calendar (represented above) uses 1921 Pétrus as an example. This is one of those elusive bottles that gets high-end wine collectors all hot and bothered. This particular vintage of Pétrus is also at the heart of Koch’s claim against Greenberg. On the one hand, you have Koch’s team saying that they’ve consulted with the chateau, saying they didn’t produce magnums during that vintage. Which is possible, if not probable; however what if the records kept weren’t accurate? It’s not a huge stretch considering the fact that technology was limited and most chateau owners/winemakers were not the savvy businessmen of today’s chateau ownership. Also, let us not forget that since this controversial bottle was made, there was a rather significant war and a tremendous amout of disorganization in France, as it was occupied twice in the span of 25 years. There is also the possibility that someone else bottled the ’21 Pétrus in magnums.
You may be asking, if Château Pétrus didn’t bottle the wine, then who could’ve? The answer – a lot of people! Up until the mid to late 1920s, Bordeaux’s chateaux didn’t bottle a lot of their own wine. Much of the wine at that time was actually bottled by négociants who would typically buy the wine in bulk and then bottle it at a later time for sale. This practice led to many inconsistencies in packaging and quality. Thus, it is not a stretch for there to be bottles out there that are unaccounted for by the different chateau. In fact, Château Pétrus owner, Christian Moueix is quoted as saying “I believe it is perfectly possible that there were magnums from Château Pétrus in those years (referring to ’34, ’29, ’28, ’24 and ’21).” This is the according to the claim put forth by Eric Greenberg and his counsel against William Edgerton, Koch’s wine authentication expert.
Beyond this, there’s also the fact that many wines/bottles are reconditioned over the years (the act of replacing deteriorating corks and foil capsules) by either the chateau or négociants. This makes visually authenticating a wine that was reconditioned decades ago difficult. According to Greenberg’s claim, most of Edgerton’s findings were based on visual inspection.
As I mentioned in the article from last week, I’m not here to say which of either Koch or Greenberg is telling the truth, as I have no clue. What I’m here to do is to tell those who find this interesting and are compelled to tell others, either in print or by word of mouth, tread lightly as the facts have NOT been established. What everyone has heard is only half the story, the Bill Koch half. It’s not fair to the accused or implicated to be given this stigma, especially considering the likely unreliable or incomplete records kept by the chateaux and négociants at the time.
The image above indicates new ways in which wineries are attempting to combat counterfeiting.
Regardless, there are a lot of holes in Koch’s accusations, yet there are questions that need answered by the accused as well. When it is all said and done, there’s a silver lining for us, the consumer, as most high-end producers have been implementing numerous forms of authentication measures on their bottles (see image to the left). In the end, as long as the problem and issue with accountability are addressed, we should all be better for it.
Now that we’ve addressed some of the issues with this single tear-away calendar entry, let’s bring it back to the disseminators of information (including myself). This calendar entry was just the tip of the iceberg, as Wine Spectator ran a whole issue largely based on Koch’s side of things. Is this right? Not really. Does it sell issues and get a buzz going? Yup! So if that’s what they’re all about, then so be it. However as someone who wants fair representation and for the accused to have a chance to defend themselves before we pass judgment, then I say we should demand more from our informational sources and ourselves (the amount of misinformation out there regarding not only the Koch Crusade, but wine and world news in general is disappointing).
Don’t forget, it is easy to accuse, however it’s nearly impossible to get the stigma off of you, even if found innocent in the end.