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Book Review – The Billionaire’s Vinegar, By Benjamin Wallace

By May 22, 2011No Comments

This book has been out a couple of years, but I couldn’t help picking up a copy to read as the events happened in the midst of my formative wine years. It recounts the sale of a bottle of Chateau Lafitte 1787 purported to have belonged to Thomas Jefferson, at Christie’s in 1985 for $156,000, the highest price ever paid for a single bottle of wine, and it unravels much of the mystery of its provenance, investigating the subject of wine forgery.

In the late 1970s and through the 1980s, large format vertical tastings of fine wines were making headlines around the world. Tastings of first growth clarets and Sauternes which featured bottles back to the 1800s and further, initially by European and then American collectors, were in vogue. Only those sufficiently authoritative and experienced were invited to a select club of tasters. We were inspired to emulate such magnificent events in Dunedin, though not to the same degree of extravagance (by far), with verticals of Chateaux Palmer, Mouton-Rothschild and d’Yquem, thus relieving ourselves of most of our discretionary income. However, the purchase of a bottle of wine two centuries old, engraved with the initials “Th.J.” owned by the author of the American Declaration of Independence, was something that reminded us that we were way out of the league of the world’s great collectors.

The purchaser of the Ch. Lafitte 1787 was Kip Forbes, son of U.S. publishing magnate Malcolm Forbes, well-known for his impressive collections of all sorts of valuables. The seller was Hardy Rodenstock, a German wine collector and merchant who ‘discovered’ a cache of “Th.J.” engraved bottles in the renovation of a house in Paris in the late 1970s. Rodenstock cleverly used this find to further his reputation in the wine world, and subsequent discoveries in Russia and Argentina earned him the reputation as one of the most serious and knowledgeable wine hunters in the world.

However, from the start, the bottle’s provenance was doubted, based on the work of Cinder Goodwin at Monticello, where all things to do with Jefferson are authenticated. However this was ignored or not believed in by sellers and buyers. The story Benjamin Wallace tells is one of avarice, ignorance and unfounded faith, as he gets to the core of the story – that people believe what they want to believe. On the way, he describes the extravagance of the wine world at the highest level, the intricacies, politics and personalities of the wine trade and the secondary market, the scientific background and methodology that is so important in important in proving origin, and the motives and dreams of those who have the means to follow them to the fullest. This is the meat of the book which appeals to the wine enthusiast. The way Wallace tells the story, revealing clue by clue, makes it a populist read. And the book is recommended on these points.

The story ends in court, where Bill Koch, an eventual owner of one of the dubious ‘Th.J.’ bottles, has sued Rodenstock. The matter remains in the legal system without resolution to date. Benjamin Wallace’s last line is: “If a fake wine is served at a tasting and no one notices, would it have mattered if it was real?”

The relevance to us mere mortals in the wine world is the importance of tasting the real thing. Such extravagances of the past will surely not be repeated, not only because of the mistrust in wines so old, but also because such large tastings can be seen as excesses? However, I would not turn down an opportunity of attending a vertical tasting of great wine. In today’s world of wine, vertical tastings in a much tighter and manageable format remain the basis of showing a wine’s ability to keep, age well and develop with cellaring. This is the practical and useful legacy of more outrageous times.

The Billionaire’s Vinegar, Benjamin Wallace, Three Rivers Press, New York, 2008

RRP US$24.95

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