Drinking With the Enemy

 Slate’s wine critic attends an awkward tasting.

1947 Petrus.

I published a lengthy investigative piece last June about the fraud scandal roiling the fine-wine world. At the center of the story was a New York-based retailer called Royal Wine Merchants, which appeared to have served as a conduit for Hardy Rodenstock, a German pop-music-promoter-turned-wine dealer who is suspected of flooding the market with counterfeit old Bordeaux. Focusing on one wine in particular, the 1921 Château Pétrus, the piece documented the links between Rodenstock and Royal and also showed how the allegations against Royal dragged the critic Robert Parker into the controversy. (For an update on the major players mentioned in the June article, click here.)

After the article ran, I exchanged e-mails with a friend of mine named Wilfred Jaeger, a Bay Area wine collector (he co-owns a restaurant in San Francisco called RN74, one of the city’s premier wine hangouts, and also owns parts of two vineyards in Burgundy). Wilf had issues with my story. He thought that it led readers to conclusions—about Royal Wine Merchants and about the fraud problem generally—that weren’t clearly supported by the available evidence. He pointed out that determining whether a rare bottle is a fake is an inexact science, and he thought it was possible that many if not most of the wines Rodenstock sold were legitimate. He also felt that the article unfairly portrayed Royal as being complicit in a crime. Wilf said that he had purchased from Royal in the past, had never encountered any bottles that he believed were fakes, and had found its principals, Jeff Sokolin and Daniel Oliveros, to be likeable and trustworthy.   We did some amiable jousting via e-mail, and finally agreed that we would continue the discussion over dinner the next time he was in New York. Wilf said he would come with a magnum of 1921 Pétrus. I figured he was joking. He wasn’t.

In fact, he went one better; rather than the 21 Pétrus, he opted to bring a magnum of the legendary 1947 Pétrus (he said he made the switch because it appeared that the cork on the ‘47 was starting to fail and he thought it best to open the bottle sooner rather than later). I was actually pleased by the change. As I explained in my June article, there is reason to doubt the authenticity of every magnum of 21 Pétrus in circulation, and while it would have been interesting to taste the wine, knowing that it was almost surely a fake would have been deflating. The ‘47, by contrast, was going to be cloaked in uncertainty. No one denies that there are legitimate magnums of the ‘47, hailed by Robert Parker as “the most decadent wine of the century,” but there have allegedly been many fraudulent bottles, too. I had good reason to wonder about Wilf’s magnum in particular, since he had purchased it from Royal. (Import records show that Rodenstock shipped 31 magnums of the 47 to Royal between 1999 and 2008, an astonishingly large quantity of a Bordeaux that is now as rare as it is renowned.)

I made clear to Wilf that I was in no position to authenticate his bottle; while I have tasted a number of wines from the 1940s, I’d never had the ‘47 Pétrus before and am hardly an expert when it comes to judging labels, corks, capsules, and other features that can offer clues about provenance. Even so, here was a chance to taste a wine at the forefront of the counterfeiting scandal, procured from a merchant suspected of having sold many fakes, and I was certainly eager to hear what my palate had to say.

A few days before our dinner, Wilf phoned with a question I had guessed would be forthcoming: Would I mind if he invited Royal’s Jeff Sokolin to join us? He thought it would be good for me to meet him and said that he suspected we might even hit it off. We would also be joined by Wilf’s friend Daniel Salzman, a Columbia University neuroscientist and wine enthusiast. I couldn’t exactly say no; it would have been unsporting and cowardly to have declined the chance to sit down with Sokolin, and he certainly deserved the opportunity to offer his side of the story. Wilf acknowledged that his wife thought he was crazy to put me and Sokolin in the same room, and when I told my wife about it, she thought he was crazy, too. I will admit to some trepidation; after all, my story had depicted Royal as a shady operation that had received hundreds of questionable bottles from the notorious Rodenstock. The article had surely not endeared me to Sokolin and Oliveros. One afternoon, I found myself contemplating particularly macabre scenarios and coming up with imaginary New York Post headlines (“Point Blanc” was my favorite, although I also liked “Bullets Over Bordeaux” and “Not the Magnum He Was Expecting”).

I was wrestling, too, with my own conflicted feelings. The wine obsessive in me in was naturally hoping to be blown away by the ‘47: A few years ago, I traveled to Switzerland just to try the 1947 Cheval Blanc, and I was now going to taste the other colossus from that epic year. There’s that famous Seinfeld episode in which Teri Hatcher says of her breasts, “They’re real, and they’re spectacular.” I wanted to be able to say the same thing about the Pétrus. On the other hand, a disappointing showing would suggest that the bottle was indeed dodgy, an outcome that would make for a tidier coda to my original article.

Sokolin and I were the first to arrive at Daniel Boulud’s db Bistro Moderne, the Manhattan restaurant where we’d all agreed to meet. The hostess, who was either unaware of the circumstances of the dinner or who had a twisted sense of humor, immediately brought us face-to-face. We shook hands and exchanged hesitant smiles. Sokolin had come with two magnums of his own: a 1961 Château Lafleur and a 1950 Château Latour à Pomerol, both highly acclaimed Bordeaux. We made some strained small talk until Wilf arrived, at which point we were shown to the table. Wilf decided that we would warm up with a bottle of white Burgundy, which quickly gave way to a second bottle. Daniel Salzman soon joined us, as did Daniel Johnnes, who oversees wine operations for Boulud’s restaurant empire, and a colleague of his, Jaime Dutton. We ordered food, and then Wilf asked the sommelier to let the games begin.

First up was the 1961 Lafleur, a wine that Rodenstock had also shipped to Royal in eye-catching quantities; according to the import records, he sent 29 magnums of the 61 to Royal between 1999 and 2006. Before actually tasting the wine, we spent 15 minutes trying to figure out if the cork was the original stopper or a replacement (consensus: it was too firm to have been the original; the bottle had been re-corked at some point, a common and perfectly acceptable practice). The Lafleur had a strikingly youthful color and a seductive perfume redolent of raspberry, truffle, menthol, and what we wine writers delicately refer to as “barnyard” (a slightly horsey smell). Unfortunately, the bouquet was the best part; the wine was drying out on the palate, the fruit largely faded. It was pleasant to drink, but like most 50-year-olds, was past its prime.

Although the label gave no such indication, Wilf thought the bottle might have come from Nicolas, a French merchant that was once renowned for its inventory of great old Bordeaux. This gave him an opportunity to share with me his theory about Rodenstock. He said he had little doubt that Rodenstock had been the source of some “funny juice;” based on what he had read, he thought it likely that the so-called Thomas Jefferson bottles had been counterfeits. But Wilf pointed out that in the late 1980s and early 1990s, Nicolas had liquidated a lot of its Bordeaux holdings and that Rodenstock may have acquired many of these bottles and then put them back on the market in the years that followed. Perhaps sensing my skepticism, he noted that Parker, Michael Broadbent, and other experts had raved about Rodenstock’s wines. “Do you really believe that all these people could have been fooled by a German rock music promoter?” he asked before answering his own question. “No way.”

Wilf was talking sotto voce, and he didn’t bring the rest of the table into the discussion. Nor did my article ever come up, except obliquely; Johnnes, indulging in a little gallows humor, asked me at one point, “So, Michael, how did you sleep last night?” Yuk, yuk, yuk. Although Sokolin and I were seated next to each other, I didn’t want to put him on the spot by asking him to respond to the article; I figured if he had something to say, he’d volunteer it. We got along quite well; he even helped himself to some of the spaetzle that came with my main course. He said that he was now doing some work in Russia, helping a wealthy businessman put together a wine collection. He had been described as a charming guy, and that was how he came across.

The ‘47 Pétrus and the ‘50 Latour à Pomerol were served at the same time. Like the Lafleur, the Latour à Pomerol was very good but clearly on the downslope, and it became an afterthought once everyone tasted the Pétrus. It had a textbook Pomerol nose of plums, cherry liqueur, truffles, and espresso. Although not quite as over-the-top as some of the literature had suggested it would be—the ‘47 Cheval Blanc that I tasted in Switzerland was a richer, more flamboyant wine—it was bursting with sweet, voluptuous fruit and seemed to gain complexity with each sip. The finish was a little raspy, but that was the only flaw I could find. “This is a sexy wine,” Sokolin announced, using a phrase I had hoped to hear (in their sales offers, Sokolin and Oliveros often describe wines as “sexy” and are known in the trade as “the sexy boys.”) Salzman gave it six stars on his five-star scale, and Wilf said simply, “That’s as good as Bordeaux gets.”

We had just about emptied both decanters when Wilf announced that it was time for some “real wine.” It took me a moment to realize he wasn’t commenting on the authenticity of the wines we’d just had; he meant it was time to ditch Bordeaux for red Burgundy, and he ordered a bottle of the 2003 Domaine de la Romanée-Conti Grands Échézeaux off the wine list. Although it was the equivalent of our ninth bottle of the evening, it disappeared in a hurry, and Wilf headed off shortly thereafter, as did Sokolin. I thanked him for coming to the dinner and gave him my card. I told him that I’d probably be writing an account of our evening and said that I would be eager to hear his take on the counterfeiting issue. Sokolin laughed, and said, “Come down to the store; we’ll talk.” I haven’t taken him up on the invitation, and he hasn’t gotten in touch with me. I am, however, now on Royal’s mailing list and am receiving wine offers from them every week.

As I was leaving the restaurant, I helped myself to the Pétrus and Lafleur bottles (with two empty magnums under my arms, I got some curious looks walking to the train). When I examined them the next morning, I was struck by how spotless the labels were —no dirt, no mold, no stains, nothing. The Lafleur one looked almost brand new. I had never seen old wines with such clean labels, and it struck me as suspicious. When I shared my concern with Wilf, he said that many perfectly legitimate rarities have pristine labels. He pointed out that a lot of them have been reconditioned at some point, a process that typically includes not only replacing the corks and capsules, but also the labels.

So what to make of all this? Based on everything I learned from my reporting last spring, I am convinced that a lot of fake wines have been dumped on the market and that Rodenstock has been a major source of them, if not the major source. I believe that Royal has sold counterfeits, though it is unclear whether it did so knowingly. Were the wines we drank at dinner genuine? I’m not sure. What I can say is this: The Pétrus was delicious, and the Lafleur and the Latour à Pomerol, while not as compelling, were both enjoyable, too. If they were knock-offs, they were pretty convincing ones, and I would love to know what was really in the bottles.

That said, I wasn’t as enthralled by the Pétrus as Wilf and the others were. My tasting note does not include any expletives, which is the usual indication that a wine has floored me (it is a sign of impending speechlessness). But was the problem the Pétrus or me? Here was a rare instance in which “label bias” may have worked to the disadvantage of a celebrated wine: It could be that I didn’t fully give in to the pleasure because I knew it was the widely counterfeited ‘47 and that the bottle had come from Royal. Or perhaps our bottle, for one reason or another, just didn’t completely live up to the wine’s reputation. I honestly don’t know.

Daniel Johnnes and I talked for a bit after everyone else had left, and he said he had experienced something similar: He thought the wines were excellent but had been unable to shake that scintilla of doubt. “It is always in the back of your mind, wondering if they’re real or fake,” as he put it. But he suggested that this wasn’t necessarily a bad thing. He said that with the prices these wines now command—the three magnums we drank have a combined current value of $40,000-$50,000, although much of the demand has evaporated because of concerns over fraud—maybe it was somehow just that they could no longer be consumed with uninhibited gratification. With this thought-provoking, vaguely subversive comment, he brought an end to an evening that left me with more questions than answers, plus a lot of alcohol to absorb.

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