Billionaire William Koch is no stranger to shoot-outs with alleged wine counterfeiters, and his appearance for the prosecution at Rudy Kurniawan's trial offered a rare glimpse into the wine collector's world.
This could well go down as a vintage year for 73-year-old Koch, a fanatic of ‘westerns’ who is using part of his estimated $3.8bn fortune to take on the world’s fine wine fakers.
Having won $12m in damages from a lawsuit against Eric Greenberg in April, Koch has spent the past two weeks as one of several high-profile witnesses who helped state prosecutors to convict Rudy Kurniawan of making, selling and attempting to sell more than $1m-worth of counterfeit wine.
Together with a wire fraud conviction, Kurniawan is now facing a maximum 40 years behind bars. He is also still facing a lawsuit filed by Koch in 2009.
As a prosecution witness in Kurniawan’s recent trial, Koch described himself as a ‘hick’ from Wichita, Kansas. An ‘unsdisciplined’ youth landed him in Culver Military Academy. But, he emerged to clamber up the academic ladder at MIT and gain a doctorate in science.
He’s not always had a love for the world’s finest wines. ‘You weren’t binge drinking at MIT on Chateau Petrus were you?’ asked prosecutor Jason Hernandez. ‘I certainly wasn’t,’ replied Koch. ‘It was on – no.’
Koch, who’s wife calls him a horder, became ‘voracious collector’ of wine in the late 1970s and early 1980s.
His collection now totals 43,000 bottles and he intends to pass what’s left to his children when he dies. The best wine he has drunk is an 1853 Chateau Latour, bought direct from the Bordeaux estate. At one of his homes, he has a bathroom door made of wine bottles that are ‘back lit’ and a ceiling made out of corks – all from wines that he has drunk.
He told jurors, ‘I’ve tried to have every year of, say, Chateau Lafite, which I believe I have about 150 years or so; I collect Mouton, which I have about 120; Latour, which I have about 100 years; and then Petrus, [of] which I have about 90 years.
But, he added, ‘unfortunately, about half of all of those years are fake’.
Koch said he began inspecting his cellar more closely after becoming suspicious about now-infamous bottles that purportedly belonged to Thomas Jefferson. Doubts were also raised about magnums of 1921 Petrus in his collection. ‘I pulled the curtain back from the Oz, you know, the wizard,’ he told jurors at the Kurniawan trial.
While giving evidence in court, Koch said he believed 443 bottles in his cellar were counterfeit, for which he estimated that he paid around $4.4m. He is yet to finish examining his entire collection.
He told jurors that he has found around 219 bottles of Burgundy in his cellar that he believes to be counterfeit and which were consigned by Kurniawan. He paid $2.1m for the wines in total.
Over the past nine years, Koch has commissioned experts in everything from glassware to glue.
He has even sent around two dozen wines to a laboratory in France that attempts to verify wines based on their content of caesium-137, a radioactive isotope that ‘did not exist in the world until after the first atomic bomb went off [in 1945]’, he told jurors. Kurniawan’s defence lawyers questioned the test’s validity.
To Koch, every detail is a clue. ‘If it walks like a duck, squawks like a duck, has feathers like a duck, it’s a duck. So if the label is fake, the cork is fake, the capsule is fake, the bottle is fake, what do you think is in the bottle? There’s a 99.99% probability the wine is fake as well.’
With the outcome of the Kurniawan trial deemed by some to be a victory for Koch, expect to see more of the same from this self-styled lone ranger of the fine wine scene.
Written by Chris Mercer