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Phony wine lands Marin tycoon in hot water

Pouring cheap wine into expensive bottles may fool drunk party guests, but counterfeit bottles of collectible vintages — valued up to $30,000 a bottle — didn’t fool billionaire wine collector William Koch.

Attorneys for Koch convinced a federal jury in Manhattan last week that Eric Greenberg — wealthy entrepreneur, San Francisco restaurant owner and former Huffington Post blogger — knowingly included fakes in a 24-bottle lot sold at auction in 2005 for $320,000.

The jury awarded Koch $12 million in punitive damages after finding Greenberg fraudulently represented the authenticity of rare, expensive vintages like an 1864 Chateau Latour, valued at  about $14,000, and three Chateau Petrus magnums worth more than $20,000 each.

Koch — a billionaire and brother to tea partiers David and Charles Koch — has battled wine counterfeiting for years. Koch was featured on the cover of Wine Spectator magazine in December 2009 as a “crusader” against counterfeit wine, alongside the quote, “I plan to put people in jail.”

Though jail time isn’t an option in civil court, the jury slapped Greenberg with a massive $12 million in punitive damages. Koch also got $379,000 in compensatory damages for what he originally paid for the wine.

While Greenberg’s lawyers argued in court their client never misrepresented the wines — which they say were sold “as-is” — Greenberg attorney Arthur Shartsis also told the jury his client believed the bottles were authentic:

“Mr. Greenberg did not believe those bottles were fake. … Mr. Greenberg believed those bottles were real. How can you be reckless when you’ve given them to the top people in the world to be examined?”

In a statement, Greenberg said he believed all of the consigned wine had been authentic, and that he had disclosed there were inauthentic bottles in his collection for sale and did not attempt to conceal them.

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