When Atlanta wine collector Julian LeCraw Jr. spent $91,400 on a single bottle in 2006, he was convinced that the 1787 vintage from the renowned Chateau d'Yquem in France was worth the lofty price, then the highest ever for a white wine. Now, LeCraw says he has been left with the bitter aftertaste of a fake.
LeCraw alleged in a recent lawsuit in Atlanta that the Chateau d'Yquem and 14 other rare bottles he bought were nothing more than “worthless glass containing unknown fluids.” The collector, who paid hundreds of thousands of dollars for the bottles in 2006 and 2007, is suing the seller, the Antique Wine Co., based in London, for $25 million.
“He really enjoyed buying these wines, which are really like pieces of art,” said LeCraw's lawyer, Shea Sullivan. “Mr. LeCraw didn't believe in a million years that he was being sold fake wine.”
The Antique Wine Co. rebuffed LeCraw's claims. It “strongly denies all the allegations made against it by Julian LeCraw,” the company said this week. “The proceedings brought against the Antique Wine Company will be vigorously defended.”
LeCraw is among a growing number of wine connoisseurs who have driven wine sales, and prices, up in the United States. But the rising prices have also spurred counterfeiters who target collectors eager to flaunt trophy wines — and pay handsomely for their acquisitions.
A series of recent scandals has turned the spotlight on the problem of fake wines. In December, a federal jury found Rudi Kurniawan, a renowned dealer of rare wines, guilty of selling millions of dollars' worth of counterfeit wine. A 2006 auction of his wines by Acker, Merrall & Condit raised $24.7 million, the largest total ever for a single consignor, according to Wine Spectator, a trade journal.
“As the wine has gotten more expensive, more people have taken interest in copying it,” said Mark Solomon, fine wine director at Leland Little Auction & Estate Sales and a co-founder of Truebottle.com, a site that helps consumers spot counterfeits.
“Some of these counterfeits are very good, and they're getting better and better,” Solomon added. “Upon taste, it's generally easier to tell. But unfortunately, when you taste a wine, you've already purchased it.”
LeCraw, a longtime collector, believed the 1787 Chateau d'Yquem was a rare find. The grapes, according to the seller, were picked before George Washington was elected as the United States' first president. The president of the Antique Wine Co., Stephen Williams, flew the prized vintage to Atlanta in a private jet.
In 2013, LeCraw decided to sell some of his bottles, and showed off his collection to a wine director at an auction house in San Francisco. When that director questioned the wines' authenticity, LeCraw hired Maureen Downey, an expert in fine and rare wines, to investigate.
Downey concluded that some of the labels on the bottles he had purchased from the Antique Wine Co., supposedly centuries old, had been printed by computer, according to the lawsuit. It said she also found irregularities in the glue, the corks, the shape and color of the bottles, and the color of the wine.
Officials who later studied the bottle agreed that the wine was a fake, along with another bottle from that vineyard that LeCraw had purchased from the Antique Wine Co. Another vineyard, the Chateau Lafite Rothschild, declared 12 other bottles “faux, faux, faux,” according to the lawsuit.
“Unfortunately, what we're seeing now is that so many auction houses and retail sellers that claim to be experts aren't doing the kind of due diligence that's required,” said Downey, owner of Chai Consulting, a San Francisco firm that advises wine collectors.
“They have to ask questions,” Downey said. “Do you have a destroyed-looking label, and a brand-new cork? Is it a deal that's too good to be true?”