Saturday, January 5, 2019

BOOK REVIEW: The Billionaire's Vinegar by Benjamin Wallace

Our book group’s next selection is The Billionaire’s Vinegar by Benjamin Wallace. This is one of those journalistic histories that uses a particular event as a focal point for a broader study of a time period or subculture. In this case, it is the December 5, 1985 auction of a rare wine by Michael Broadbent of Christie’s. The wine was purported to be a Chateau Lafite from 1787, engraved with the initials Th. J., indicating that it had once been owned by Thomas Jefferson. A German wine collector named Hardy Rodenstock had unearthed a cache of wines that had been hidden away in a Paris cellar. His plan was to sell most and drink some. This particular bottle sold for $156,000.00 at auction, a record amount.

The subsequent tale of this bottle is unfortunate and not very interesting. The new owners had no intention of drinking it, and it was displayed under conditions far from ideal that destroyed any possibility of it being drinkable.

Much more interesting is the story of the wine dealers, auction houses, collectors, wine experts, and, eventually, scientists, who became embroiled in the various tastings and sales promoted by Rodenstock.

The rare wine industry skyrocketed during the 1980s and 90s. A tremendous amount of money changed hands along with these very old wines which were not as rare as one would expect.

At first, the book draws you in with the descriptions of these exquisite vintages and the excitement of tasting a wine that is more than a century old. There are specific ways to inspect a bottle that can give a clue as to the condition of the wine, but there is no definitive method except opening the bottle and drinking it. An opened bottle holds a great deal of promise, but once the bottle is opened, the probability that it will disappoint is high. So why spoil these priceless collectors’ items by actually tasting them? Why bother proving that they are genuine?

As the narrative proceeds, the inconsistencies of the stories build. Jeffersonian scholars doubted the wine’s provenance from the start. But once one bottle is proven to be a fake, it destroys the credibility of the remaining Jefferson wine cache, the credibility of Rodenstock and the rest of his collection, the credibility of Christie’s auction house, and the credibility of the rare wine industry in general. There is a lot at stake.

Moreover, it is (or at least was) surprisingly difficult to prove a wine is fake. It is especially difficult without opening the bottle.

The Billionaire’s Vinegar ties together the threads of the mystery of the Jefferson bottles with the greater world of rare wine collectors and sellers. It’s a compelling account of how ultra-luxurious living and fraud too often go hand in hand.