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Wine and Law

Although strictly speaking this has little to do with international law, readers with an oenological leaning might be interested to hear that legendary wine auctioneer and critic, Michael Broadbent of Christies and Decanter, has decided to file a law suit in London against the publisher Random House for comments made in “The Billionaire’s Vinegar” by Benjamin Wallace.

In his book, from 2006, Wallace portrays one of the most intriguing episodes from the international wine world, which occurred in the 1980s and onwards. In short, a German wine dealer named Hardy Rodenstock (although his real name has since been found to be different) claimed to have unearthed from a location in Paris, which he refused to specify, a number of exclusive bottles of Bordeaux wine, which allegedly had belonged to the former US President Thomas Jefferson (who served as ambassador to France prior to becoming president). What was more, the bottles, which supposedly included a 1787 Lafite and a 1784 Château d’Yquem, were engraved with “Th. J”. Obviously such a find would seem spectacular and the news was met with equal amounts of scepticism and fascination. Subsequently, in 1985, one bottle (a 1787 Château Lafite) was put on sale through Christies in London and this is where Broadbent as auctioneer comes into the picture. The bottle was bought by US millionaire Malcolm Forbes for $156,450. Later, Rodenstock sold other bottles, some of which were bought by US based industrialist and wine collector William Koch. Koch has subsequently filed a series of law suits in the US against Rodenstock alleging that the Jeffferson bottles were fakes (Rodenstock consequently refrains from turning up in court). For instance, Koch alleges that the initials had been drilled with a power tool which obviously was not readily available in Jefferson’s time and that no records of the specific wines were found among Jefferson’s otherwise detailed wine notes. In addition, Koch and other critics, including Wallace in his book, argue that the decision of Broadbent to sell one of the wines at Christies led to a sense of credibility being attached to the Jefferson bottles. On the other hand, Broadbent has acknowledged that “we didn’t have proof of where it came from”.

All these shenanigans are vividly portrayed in Wallace’s book, which is by all accounts a good read although some of the assumptions made in the book may seem to fall short of a lawyer’s burden of proof standard. Anyway, the matter of the current law suit in London is the damage which Broadbent alleges that Wallace’s book has caused to his professional reputation as one of the highest respected wine critics in Europe. Moreover, the whole affair serves to point out that if indeed some of Rodenstock’s wines were fake, then he managed to fool some of the most well-respected wine critics around (including Robert Parker, who was present at one of Rodenstock’s spectacular tastings). From a legal point of view, the choice of England as jurisdiction will seem odd to some, given the book is only published in the US and should Broadbent be successful, critics of so-called “libel tourism” may have another case in point when arguing that the libel laws of England are too liberal. In addition, and perhaps rather sadly, it would seem that the otherwise enjoyable exercise of drinking wine is not free from legal interference. Of course, one piece of legal advice would simply be to stick to your £7 favourite from Tesco (which most of us do anyway), in which case you should be safe from legal repercussions.

Links to the story available here, here, and here and a background piece here.

One Comment

  1. Hampers Hampers 1 September 2009

    Nice blog with a nice title “Wine and Law” It was nice going through it. keep it up the good work.

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