Jury awards $12M to Fla. billionaire in wine spat

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Former yachtsman Bill Koch

Former yachtsman Bill Koch (AP Photo)

NEW YORK (AP) — A Florida billionaire awarded $12 million Friday by a Manhattan jury in his dispute over phony vintage wine vowed to do more to expose wine frauds. The energy maven and yachtsman also proclaimed it his happiest day since winning the America’s Cup in 1992.

“Out of sight! Over the moon!” William Koch said as he described his feelings after emerging giggling with glee from a courtroom in U.S. District Court in Manhattan. “We weren’t even expecting any damages and we got $12 million. Unbelievable!”

The verdict came against California businessman Eric Greenberg, who insisted throughout a three-week civil trial that he never intentionally sold a fake bottle of wine among auctions that generated about $42 million for him over an eight-year period. The trial involved alleged counterfeit bottles of Bordeaux labeled as if they were made from 1864 to 1950.

In a statement, Greenberg called the verdict “a disappointment because I believed all the consigned wine to be authentic.”

He vowed to appeal, adding that “we believe that we acted honorably and tried to do the right thing for all concerned.”

Outside court, Greenberg declined to comment beyond his statement.

Koch’s lawyer, John Hueston, suggested that a criminal probe of Greenberg was underway, saying: “We’re cooperating with the FBI.” He declined to elaborate.

In a chilly drizzle outside court, the 72-year-old Koch celebrated with his lawyers, posed for pictures and met briefly with at least one of the eight jurors who decided on Thursday that Koch had been defrauded, awarding him $380,000 in compensatory damages. Other jurors wished him well as he left court. One even tried to quietly slip him a note in a rolled up piece of paper as she shook his hand before she left the jury box.

Koch, the brother of famous industrialists and conservative political supporters David and Charles Koch, walked out of the courthouse with his lawyer, each of them displaying one of the bottles at stake in the case.

Jurors had returned Friday to hear Koch and Greenberg testify again and deliberate over punitive damages.

“I’m very sorry I had counterfeit wine,” Greenberg told them. “It’s a horrible thing. Both of us have lost millions of dollars.”

Greenberg estimated that the case had cost both sides a total of $17 million.

“This is an absolute waste of money, a waste of resources … and this has wasted three weeks of these people’s lives,” he said, glancing toward the jury. The verdict was another blow to Greenberg, a former billionaire who built two Internet consulting companies before the 2000 collapse of those stocks reportedly reduced his net worth by as much as 90 percent.

Jury foreman Darrell Paul, 41, of the Bronx, called Koch “amazing” as he described how jurors arrived at the $12 million figure. He said they each wrote what they thought Koch deserved and then averaged it. He said the most a juror thought he deserved was $25 million while the least was $5 million. Paul said he had recommended $10 million.

The case against Greenberg is one of four civil cases Koch is pursuing in the courts. He said he planned to use the $12 million to continue his crusade to clean up the wine auction industry, including by creating a website that highlights fake wines and who sells them.

Koch said he would include in the list the 421 bottles he had identified in his own collection as fake after buying them for $4.4 million over the years.

“I’m sad at the amount of fakes,” he said. “That’s why I stopped buying very old wines.”

He added: “The ones that are real I still love.”

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