PALM BEACH, Fla. —William Koch didn't mean to turn the wine world upside-down.
The Palm Beach billionaire developed a taste for wine as a young man, and as he accumulated his wealth, he built an extensive wine collection. Among that collection: a 1787 Lafite Bordeaux with Thomas Jefferson's initials etched into the bottle.
Except, he says, it's a fake.
"I thought that I had a piece of history, a piece of America's most important history," Koch said, holding up the bottle in his personal wine cellar, which contains about 40,000 bottles.
His response was unheard of in the wine world: He sued the seller.
Since that initial lawsuit, he has filed four more and is working on a fifth, all in an effort to clean up an industry where a single bottle can fetch more than $100,000. Now, collectors are warier. Some auction houses are shunning him.
And the wine world hasn't been the same since.
"I think it started off as a gentle breeze that's turning into a hurricane," said Koch, who estimates having spent $4 million on wine that turned out to be fake and another $7 million in legal expenses against the sellers. "I'm going after this like a junkyard dog or like a bulldog. I'm not giving up."
Koch, who made his fortunes first with Wichita-based Koch Industries, and later with his own energy company, the West Palm Beach-based Oxbow Corp., was on the cover of Wine Spectator magazine for stories detailing the growing concern over counterfeit wine. The "Jefferson bottles," now widely regarded as fakes after Koch's investigation, have proved to be a game-changer in the wine world.
"Several collectors we spoke to for our cover story complain that Koch has yet to prove anything and that he may damage the entire industry in pursuit of a few bad apples," said Mitch Frank, associate editor of Wine Spectator. "But other collectors said they believe what he's doing is good — that his suits are forcing the industry to reform."
Koch's love affair with wine came from a falling out with beer. While a graduate student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, he came down with hepatitis and had to stop drinking beer because of a weakened liver. Eventually, he realized he could handle wine.
"I started at the bottom of the barrel and worked my way to the top," Koch said.
Koch, now 69, isn't exaggerating. In 1985, when the first Thomas Jefferson bottles went up for auction, one sold for a record $156,000. Three years later, Koch snatched up the Lafite and three other bottles of Bordeaux also purported to be Jefferson's, all for about $500,000.
In 2005, Koch was asked to showcase his bottles at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. In conversations about the bottles' origins, questions were raised about the authenticity of the wine. He began investigating.
According to the federal lawsuit in New York filed against the wine supplier, Thomas Jefferson's "initials" actually were etched into the bottle with modern-day power tools. Jefferson — a stickler for keeping records — left none of those wines. And there was no evidence Jefferson ever engraved his initials into wine bottles, according to the suit.
According to published reports, the supplier of the wine, Hardy Rodenstock, maintains that the wine is genuine. Rodenstock, who also goes by the name Meinhard Goerke, lives in Germany and could not be reached for comment. The case is continuing and a judge is threatening to find Rodenstock in default for refusing to participate, court records show.
Koch has since also sued sellers in California and Chicago, alleging they peddled more fake wine. None of the suits have concluded. He said the suits have made him a pariah in some circles.
"The auction houses are treating me as if I'm a leper," he said, laughing.
The counterfeiting saga has left a lasting impression beyond those within the wine world. A book written about it, "Billionaire's Vinegar," by journalist Benjamin Wallace, is being made into a movie produced by actor Will Smith. HBO also is developing a movie based on articles on the case that appeared in the New Yorker magazine.
Frank said that rare-wine auctions continue, but they have changed in light of Koch's crusade.
"All the auction houses are being more careful today," he said. "Hopefully, collectors are also inspecting the wines more carefully before they bid."