The White Club, a Swiss-based fine wine “club” with whom I had some dealings, has recently been exposed as a scam.
On Monday 12th May, Peter Hellman of the Wine Spectator contacted me to ask about The White Club event held at Texture restaurant in London in April 2013 and the Club’s practices. His article can be seen here.
I gave a full reply to Pete, which I reproduce here with yet more information that has come to light subsequently.
I first contacted Rene Dehn and Malene Meisner in July 2011 when I was consulting to a Swiss-based auction house. Pekka Nuikki of FINE magazines, who I knew well and had done many articles for, had forwarded me their details as potential consignors/buyers for the auction. Subsequently we arranged to meet in London in February 2012. We hit it off and I was invited to their Sauternes dinner held in Basel on 30th March 2012. Dehn and Meisner had a relatively small apartment and already had guests so I was farmed out to (very charming and hospitable) Danish friends up the road.
It was an epic dinner; the wines were spectacular. All the corks were on display to assert condition and provenance. Jürg Richter was there and he knows more about Sauternes than anybody. His presence gave the event enormous creditability. (“Star guests” was a recurring theme with TWC: Jancis Robinson, Neal Martin, and Peter Sisseck, among other wine industry “stars”, attended TWC events.)
An 1830 Ferreira Port was served. I subsequently wrote, “one of only four – now three! – bottles left. It was so red-blooded and lively that I would never have guessed its age… It looked, smelled and tasted like a 40-year old Vintage Port, more 1970 than 1830.” The liveliness of a 182-year old Port aroused my suspicion, as did Dehn’s story of how he acquired it, not least because the number of bottles left always changed with each telling – as did the number of TWC members. But the splendour of the Sauternes overrode any real doubts about this bottle. Dehn was unreliable with figures and clearly had no aptitude for administration or financial metrics but I took the view that he could be worked with because he was so good at sourcing impeccable wines through (as he claimed) TWC’s members or direct from châteaux and domaines.
I continued to contribute texts to their website (on a goodwill rather than cash basis, usually with recycled articles). We maintained a cordial relationship and I visited them twice again (in August 2012 and in February 2013) to discuss how we could continue to work together on a more professional and formal basis. By February 2013, TWC had pulled off some spectacular events, including the Sauternes dinner, the DRC weekend and the Pomerol events with Neal Martin. I had confidence that we could have a good working relationship, combining their marketing and hosting skills with my administrative abilities.
However, as I got closer to TWC I harboured serious doubts about its financial administration and viability. It was non-existent. I could not see how it made any profit, even allowing for the high cost of membership and attending the events. With no obvious source of income what did Rene Dehn and Malene Meisner live on, or, for that matter, how could they pay me and other associates? Dehn dropped hints that he was wealthy and had a private income from, among other things, commission on fridges sold in India. As he told me, two TWC members had done a deal through him to sell fridges in India and Dehn had collected a small ongoing % commission on this. Just think of how many fridges are sold in India: even a tiny % would generate a lot of money.
At the February 2013 visit Dehn mentioned that some wines were left over from the December 2012 DRC event. It was decided to do an event in London with these bottles. I had been invited (by text from Dehn) to the December event at very short notice (text received at 4pm with an invitation to lunch in Burgundy the following day) but I was recovering from norovirus at the time and was too ill to travel. I later saw a few post-event write-ups but I was unaware of exactly what had been served. For the planned London dinner I had not seen the bottles prior to the event. I trusted Dehn to have done proper diligence. After all, the December event had included a visit to DRC and M de Villaine. Dehn asserted that “his” bottles had been seen and de facto authenticated by M de Villaine himself.
Tasters are entitled to query the veracity of an old and very expensive bottle. But several of the people at the London dinner booked another White Club event straightaway (which was subsequently cancelled). The wines were, except for the 1958 and 1972 vintages, astonishingly good. I reported the provenance of the wines as described to me by Dehn.
The day after the event I went back to the restaurant to settle the bill and to collect any leftovers. I took all the empty bottles home with me and scooped up the corks and put them in a box. The bottles and corks were then put into a cupboard and I did not look at them closely until January 2014.
Time went by, with an on-off correspondence between me and TWC. Dehn and Meisner would vanish for weeks at a time and then I would be deluged with requests for, say, copy for the website. It took Dehn three months to contact me to settle the bills for the London event, proving my view that he had no interest in or aptitude for basic financial administration. It was a very unsatisfactory aftermath and I decided not to have any further dealings with him – too feckless and too unreliable. My last correspondence with Rene Dehn was an email from him on 26th September 2013. After that I made no further attempts to contact him.
I bumped into Neal Martin at a Burgundy tasting in January 2014 and he asked if I’d had any contact with TWC recently. I said that I hadn’t and that, like him, I’d had trouble getting paid and wanted no more to do with them. (Neal and I had both attended a “private” TWC dinner at Dehn’s and Meisner’s Basel home in February 2013.)
Shortly afterwards I was emailed by a Swiss-based Burgundy “expert” who informed me that real doubts had surfaced about TWC’s activities. Between meeting Neal Martin and receiving this email a Danish journalist, who said that he had strong evidence to show that TWC had been serving fakes at its events, had also contacted me. I asked to see this evidence and the penny dropped. At least two of the bottles that were served in London had been previously used at the December 2012 DRC event.
I got the bottles out of storage and for the first time had a long, hard look at them. Discrepancies were immediately apparent. I’ve seen more old bottles than most people and, given time to do proper diligence, I can spot discrepancies that indicate a fraudulent bottle. I worked with the Danish journalist and Michael Egan to examine the bottles and ascertain which were fakes (that is, refills) and which were forgeries (made from scratch).
I believe that six of the nine DRC wines opened in London were fakes or forgeries: the 1923 is in a brown rather than green bottle; the 1937 was used at the December 2012 event (possibly a genuine bottle but refilled for London); the 1945 was also a refill from the December event (possibly a Kurniawan forgery, thought Egan); the 1958 is a green bottle that is the wrong colour; the 1963 has a creased, off-centre label; and the 1972 also has a suspect label (though the jury remains open on this one).
Images of the previously used 1937 Romanée-Conti and 1945 Richebourg can be seen here.
The images of the 1937 and 1945 against a black tablecloth were taken by me. To clarify, these two bottles were previously used at the December 2012 event held in Burgundy. I hadn’t seen them before the London event – and, to be even more transparent, I did not see them until I entered Texture restaurant with the other guests. I co-promoted and co-hosted the event. I had no part in sourcing the wines.
We all have the benefit of hindsight. I think back to the DRC event at Texture and I recall that the bottles were opened (by Dehn with the sommelier) at the last moment as guests were arriving. This was all part of Dehn’s act. I should point out that Texture and the sommelier for the evening are in no way implicated in Dehn’s fraud. Like me, they were there to do a job. They had no prior knowledge or sighting of the wines.
No corks were displayed; the wines had little or no sediment; Dehn left the restaurant without a word to me or the staff, leaving me to make arrangements to settle the bill and to collect the empty bottles. He never seemed to pay for anything, always relying on quid pro quo deals (swapping bottles rather than paying for them with hard cash; getting Parmigiani to pay the rent on his Basel house; offering me access to his events rather than hard cash etc). He repeatedly changed his mobile phone number; the 1937 Romanée-Conti had a J. Drouhin neck label and was unlikely to have come from the Domaine itself as Dehn claimed (DRC does not sell direct to consumers, though it’s possible that it has bought in some stock over the years).
Professionalism meant that I trusted Dehn to do the right thing. You cannot have a working relationship with somebody if you doubt every word they say. But today I feel that he was attempting to hang me (and others) out to dry, getting me to talk up the provenance of the wines and therefore associating me with them.
It is a tricky balance. I earn my living from wine. Like Neal Martin and others, I had to weigh up a potential source of income and the opportunity to taste wines that everybody wants to try against an implied duty of care with assessing the provenance of these rare bottles. Fine and rare wine is incredibly seductive and a priori diligence tends to go out of the window when a bottle of 1937 Romanée-Conti is plonked in front of you by a charming and knowledgeable host. (Incidentally, Peter Hellman’s report quoted me as saying “Prior diligence tends to go out the window”; perhaps Wine Spectator readers do not have an appreciation of Latin philosophical terms.)
It is like the recent “discovery” of Christopher Columbus’s Santa Maria wreck. Having taken a few murky photos in deep water, US underwater investigator Barry Clifford has said, “All the geographical, underwater topography and archaeological evidence strongly suggests that this wreck is Columbus’s famous flagship, the Santa Maria.” People want to believe that it’s Columbus’s ship. Time and diligence will tell.
Wines I had chez TWC were always first timers for me: I had no points of comparison. Dehn knew that I would have noted it if I had the same wine more than once with TWC and I would have compared notes and photographs, which would surely have exposed his scam. But to somebody arriving at a restaurant the bottles in London and at other events all looked the part.
I was close to The White Club but so were, at various times, Jancis Robinson and Neal Martin. Unfortunately for him, Neal in particular was heavily exposed to TWC fakes. He was served the same bottle of Pétrus 1970 twice, for example. But, like many people, he was seduced by Dehn’s charm and the opportunity to taste those wines. Jancis admitted in her recent article, “As someone who, along with le tout Bordeaux, was initially taken in by Hardy Rodenstock, I can easily see how someone establishes their credentials before gradually increasing the proportion of fake wines they serve.” It’s the same for me and, like her and Neal, I got out of it well before the recent exposé.
François Audouze, “le pape des vins anciens” and a respected authority on old wines, was at the December 2012 event where a bottle of 1900 Margaux – now known to be fake – was poured. He later wrote, “Peter Sisseck tells me that this wine is so young that if it actually is not 1900 Château Margaux, an award should be given to the winemaker who has managed to create such a phenomenal young (sic) wine. And indeed this wine is absolutely out of this world. It is worth a hundred Parker points, that is obvious, but it is so much more than that. Balance, emotion, length, depth – it has everything. And I have indeed made a mistake about its age, but it is not the first time that sublime vintage wines fool everyone (my italics). The reason everyone thought of Pétrus was because of this truffle taste, of rare precision. It is a beautiful lesson, and a splendid wine. It has inimitable perfection and absolute elegance. It could very well be the winner at the end of the day.” As confidence tricksters, Dehn and Meisner are peerless.
Dehn’s partner Malene Meisner had left him some time ago (she did not attend the London event, though she helped to market it). My understanding was that they continued to maintain a professional relationship. I was told that Meisner was living in Copenhagen with an Israeli businessman. Her recent attempts to distance herself from Dehn and TWC are contemptible. She must have known what was going on. For goodness’ sake, they lived together! When it was revealed that she did not study or pass the WSET Diploma as she claimed she had (her name is nowhere to be found on the WSET list of Diploma graduates – or is she there under a different name? For the record, I’m on page 80) the game was up: too many lies had been told for her to claim innocence.
Other people continue to support Dehn, despite plenty of evidence of his fraudulent activities. Indeed, I was forwarded an email recently that was composed by Dehn’s South African fiancée Shelley Webb, with whom I had some dealings when she was TWC’s PR. Webb is continuing to stand by her man as they work together under a new business called “Grand Cru Unique”. I was told that the Twitter stream for Grand Cru Unique has been deleted but the Facebook page with a list of events planned globally was still visible, including “bespoke venues” as listed below:
Cape Town Launch at MONDIALL Waterfront on Friday 20th June 2014
Andalusia – Picasso Museum in Malaga on Friday 19th September 2014
Johannesburg at Le Sel @ The Cradle of Mankind – with Coco Reinharz on Friday 31st October 2014
Switzerland at Razzia on Friday 21st November 2014
London on Friday 20th February 2015
Germany, Munich on Friday 20 March 2015
Austria on Friday 22nd May 2015
Belgium on Friday 19th June 2015
Amsterdam on Friday 26 June 2015
Grand Finale in New York on Friday 19 September 2015
Make a note of these dates in your diary.