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Friday, June 27, 2008

Book Review: The Billionaire's Vinegar

I just finished reading The Billionaire's Vinegar: The Mystery of the World's Most Expensive Bottle of Wine by Benjamin Wallace (Crown), an examination of the circumstances that led up to the sale—and, later, possible discrediting—of the so-called "Jefferson bottles" auctioned by Christie's. The title bottle was billed as a 1787 Château Lafite; the initials "Th.J" etched on the side of the bottle were said to prove that it had originally belonged to Thomas Jefferson. Such historic provenance led to the bottle to sell for a record-breaking $156,000 at auction in 1985.

From the beginning, there had been questions about the bottle's authenticity. It was reportedly part of a secret cache of identically initialed bottled found in a Paris basement by famous—eventually, infamous—wine collector Hardy Rodenstock, a German impresario with an extraordinary knack for finding the rarest of vintages. Rodenstock refused to disclose the exact source of his Jefferson bottles, and as time wore on, suspicion grew that he was faking many of his rarities. 

I'd read the New Yorker article on the same subject, and had expected Wallace to present a similar detective story about Rodenstock and billionaire Bill Koch, who purchased four of the Jefferson bottles and later decided to put his considerable resources into investigating whether or not they were real. But Koch doesn't even enter Wallace's story until the end. Instead, what I discovered was a rich depiction of the history of wine, from the time of Thomas Jefferson until today—its prestige, its chemistry, its recurring susceptibility to fraudulence. Without making outright accusations, Wallace sets out to show how the growing interest in rare wine made Rodenstock's alleged actions almost inevitable. The demand for ever-rarer vintages, the innate subjectivity involved in judging the taste of such bottles, an the immense amount of money involved created an irresistible target for con artists.

Wallace reveals a fondness for many of the interesting characters populating his book, and a reporter's fascination with his subject. He tries hard to maintain his objectivity, though he can't hide his dismay at the excesses of the big-budget vertical tasting parties that became common among collectors during the 1980s and '90s. There is delicious insider's gossip aplenty in this book, enough to keep any serious wine aficionado turning the pages. And for those with a more casual interest, Wallace's centuries-spanning narrative and sharp eye for detail make the book a fun and informative read. I highly recommend it—read it now, before the movie comes out. (Don't laugh, the rights have already been optioned.) —Hannah Feldman


steve said...

That's funny, the whole time I was reading this book I imagined it as a movie. Definitely an interesting read.

Dan Rousseau said...

This book keeps popping up for me. It's about time I took it for a ride.


Anonymous said...

Just ordered on Amazon, looks interesting. Mark