Billionaire Wins Millions in Lawsuit Against Ex-Billionaire over Bogus Wine

Monday, April 15, 2013
William Koch (photo: Louis Lanzano, Associated Press)

Billionaire William Koch, brother of Koch Industry billionaires David and Charles, won a seven-year battle with California internet entrepreneur and sometimes-billionaire Eric Greenberg over a multimillion-dollar purchase of wine.

An enthusiastic jury awarded Koch $379,000 in compensatory damages and tacked on $12 million in punitive damages. Three jurors shook his hand in the courtroom after the verdict and, according to Bloomberg News, a fourth told him, “I’m glad it all worked out so well.”

It did, indeed, work out well for the jubilant Koch, who recouped the reported $10 million he spent pursuing Greenberg in court. Both men attended the trial and could probably afford the spectacle.

William Koch is No. 329 on the 2013 Forbes list of U.S. billionaires, with $4 billion. His brothers, Charles and David Koch, are tied for sixth place, at $34 billion. Greenberg, often mentioned in news accounts as a billionaire, does not make the list, which runs 1,342-names deep.

Greenberg used to be on the list, back in the Silicon Valley go-go years, before the dotcom bust wiped out most, but hardly all, of his wealth. He runs a personal investment fund, Innovation Investments, and is president and CEO of Beautifull, an Emeryville, California-based startup that offers healthy, fresh food for retail and home delivery.

Koch began his pursuit after purchasing 17,000 bottles of Greenberg’s wine collection at a Zachys Wine & Liquor Inc. auction in 2005 for $3.7 million. He quickly discovered that 24 bottles worth $228,603 were filled with cheap wine.

Greenberg pleaded ignorance and said the auction house was responsible for the misleading brochures that convinced Koch to make the purchase. The brochure, he noted, said the wine purchase was “as is.”

Greenberg offered to refund the purchase but Koch sued and the jury concluded Greenberg knew about the fake bottles.

Koch, who had been burned before on some wine purportedly owned by Thomas Jefferson, has been on a crusade to clean up the high-end wine business and culture, which is famously full of charlatans and "powerful assholes." He blames the criminal element for curtailing his wine-collecting hobby.

He may not be alone. Worldwide sales of fine and rare wine fell 19% last year, from a record $478 million in 2011 to $389 million, according to Wine Spectator. Sales dropped 10% in the United States, to $138 million.

Koch has said he has identified 421 fake bottles of wine in his own collection, for which he paid $4.4 million. There was no indication that he would switch to beer.

–Ken Broder


To Learn More:

Jury Awards Bill Koch $12 Million in Counterfeit Wine Lawsuit (by Peter Hellman and  Mitch Frank, Wine Spectator)

Billionaire Koch Wins $12 Million Verdict in Wine Trial (by Patricia Hurtado, Bloomberg)

Billionaire William Koch Wins $12 Million in Wine Dispute (by Bernard Vaughan, Reuters)

Jury Awards $12M to Fla. Billionaire in Wine Spat (by Larry Neumeister, Associated Press)

Koch v. Greenberg (U.S. District Court Southern District)

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