Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Book Review: "The Billionaire's Vinegar"

What's that old saying we all learn sometime fairly early in life? Oh yes: when something seems too good to be true, it usually is. And yet stories of people getting taken in crop up all the time. One such is that recounted in Benjamin Wallace's new book The Billionaire's Vinegar: The Mystery of the World's Most Expensive Bottle of Wine (Crown, 2008). Wallace reports on the most famous (not to mention lucrative) wine hoax of all time, the sale of a cache of vintage bottles "discovered" in a Paris cellar and engraved with the initials "Th.J".

In 1985, the first of these bottles to go on the open market (a 1737 Lafite) set a still-standing record for the highest price ever paid at auction for a bottle of wine when it sold at Christie's to the family of Malcolm Forbes for the equivalent $156,000. The bottle had been authenticated by Christie's experts as having belonged to (or at least ordered by and engraved for) Thomas Jefferson during his time as the American ambassador to Paris. But even before this sale, doubts surfaced about the authenticity of the bottle, and while Christie's wine department (headed by the great Michael Broadbent) and the bottle's consignor (the somewhat-mysterious German wine collector with the inimitable - if ultimately fictional - name of Hardy Rodenstock) pooh-poohed the concerns of Monticello researchers and others, concerns persisted.

In the intervening two decades, as Rodenstock sold more bottles and continued to find more surprising and unexpected rarities, the doubts mounted and the facade slowly began to crumble. Wallace ably leads his reader through the many twists and turns in the very complicated story, introducing us to Rodenstock and his fellow wine enthusiasts (be they auctioneers, writers, collectors, or just tasters) as well as to the culture of high-end wine collecting and tasting, the sharp rivalries between competitors in the wine world and to the fascinating investigative process (on both scientific and circumstantial fronts) which finally resulted in the discovery of the hoax and the ultimate end of Rodenstock's Icarus-like flights of wine-fancy.

Not knowing much about the rare-wine world at all, I found this book a perfect entreƩ into the subject; Wallace provided sufficient background to handle the oenocentric portion, and combined that with ample helpings of mystery, historical discussion (of wine-making, Jefferson, forgery, &c.), and journalistic character-sketches and interviews of the characters involved with all aspects of the case. Most fascinating was the cult of gullibility which seemed to develop and Rodenstock and his implausible discoveries: everyone involved so wanted the bottles to be real that they all accepted what Wallace calls the "standard of plausible confirmability" and drank the Rodenstock Kool-Aid (there's a phrase sure to give a true oenophile chills up the spine, I'm sure).

Sure to be one of my top books of 2008. I had to pace myself with it, because I would have read it in one sitting if I wasn't careful.

And, there's more. Patrick Radden Keefe wrote a New Yorker article about the matter last year, and reportedly both his and Wallace's works have been optioned for movies (both would make good ones). Also, word just a few days ago that Bill Koch (who you'll meet near the end of Wallace's book and is playing a major part in ongoing litigation against Rodenstock) claims that new evidence of Rodenstock's business dealings adds fuel to the lawsuits against him. So there are more shoes yet to drop in this utterly compelling case.

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