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Billionaire wins wine fight; jury deciding damages

Larry Neumeister, Associated Press

NEW YORK (AP) -- A federal jury in New York City sided with a Florida billionaire Thursday, finding that a California businessman defrauded him by selling bottles of phony vintage wine.

The jury in Manhattan returned its verdict and was then sent back to determine how much businessman Eric Greenberg owes William Koch, a yachtsman who won the America's Cup in 1992.

Outside the courtroom, Koch was smiling and said he hoped the verdict sent a message to those in the wine auction market who follow a code of silence about fake wines.

He had sued Greenberg to seek the return of $320,000 he spent on 24 wines at a 2005 auction.

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 — had insisted on the witness stand that he never intentionally sold a bad bottle of wine.

"I wouldn't sell a fake wine," he said as one of the trial's first witnesses. "I've never intentionally sold fake wine in my life."

Koch, the founder and president of the Oxbow Group, based in West Palm Beach, Fla., spent $3.7 million at the 2005 auction, buying 2,600 bottles of wine. He paid someone more than $75,000 daily for two days to make his bids, though he decided before the sale not to inspect the wines he eventually bought.

Koch, the brother of industrialists and conservative political supporters David and Charles Koch, conceded that the wine he bought from Greenberg was not his first encounter with fakes. In 1988, he said, he paid $400,000 for four bottles of French wine he falsely believed had been owned by Thomas Jefferson.