The following entry is by Cheryl, our fearless Bluesocks reading group leader.
In 1985 at Christie’s auction house in London, Kip Forbes, son of Malcolm Forbes, paid $156,000 dollars for a bottle of Chateau Lafitte. This is the highest price ever paid for a single bottle of wine, but this was not just some lowly flagon of ale. Supposedly, the Lafitte dated back to 1787 and was once owned by Thomas Jefferson. The bottle was engraved with Jefferson’s initials and in good condition. The contents might even be drinkable.
Supposedly is the key word here because doubts about the legitimacy of this “Jefferson Bottle” form the basis of an enjoyable non-fiction book entitled The Billionaire’s Vinegar by Benjamin Wallace. The story is an intriguing blend of history, true crime, social commentary, and wine appreciation.
The tale opens with the sale of the Jefferson Bottle and then details the twenty-year period that follows. This was a period in which wine collecting became a popular and expensive hobby among the wealthy. This in turn spurred the sale of notable historic wines by luxury auction houses like Christie’s and Sotheby’s. As the value of the antique vintages spiraled ever higher, numerous bottles, many extraordinarily rare, began cropping up with troubling regularity.
One wine aficionado in particular seemed to have a bottomless trove of spectacular spirits. Hardy Rodenstock, a German collector, was renowned for his ability to locate and obtain rare varieties of wine. The original Jefferson Lafitte came from his collection and through the years he introduced many, many other vintages of great age and value including a couple of dozen more Jefferson Bottles.
Rodenstock was wealthy, secretive, haughty and a vengeful hot-head. He refused to provide information on the provenance of his wine and vehemently attacked anyone who questioned his integrity or the authenticity of his finds. He also had some dubious habits. He would collect all the corks and empty antique bottles from his tasting events. Now why did he do that? What could you do with ancient empties? Refill them with counterfeit wine and resell them perhaps? Hmmmm.
Because he was considered one of the world’s leading experts on archaic alcohol, few people had the courage or expertise to confront him. It didn’t hurt that he had staunch support from the head of the fine wine section at Christie’s. So for years doubt and suspicion about counterfeiting swirled around Rodenstock but nothing was done until some of the Jefferson Bottles ended up in the hands of a billionaire named Bill Koch.
Koch was a passionate collector of wine and owned four of Rodenstock’s Jefferson Bottles. He was notoriously litigious and hated being defrauded. When Koch approached some renowned experts on the life of Thomas Jefferson about authenticating his purchases, he was surprised to find that they doubted the authenticity of the Jefferson Bottles and had publicly stated as much many years before.
Incensed, Koch assembled an expert team of detectives. The resulting investigation exposed all manner of fraudulent practices in the wide world of wine, shattering reputations and leading to a call for reforms to curb the distribution of counterfeit vintages. Koch ended up suing Rodenstock in a court case that is still playing out.
This book is enjoyable if you have an interest in the mild side of true crime but there are other pleasures to be found along the way. Wine lovers in particular will find a wealth of information on how their favorite drink is created, from the cultivation of the grape to the bottling, labeling, corking, storage, opening and pouring of the lovely bubbly. The snobby world of wine elitists is amusingly described. You also get some historical information on several of France’s most famous vineyards and learn of Thomas Jefferson’s role in introducing wine to the U.S.
The only criticism I have lies with the ending, which is a bit abrupt. But that can’t really be helped because, as mentioned earlier, Koch’s lawsuit against Rodenstock is still being litigated with no end in sight. But, all in all, this is an interesting and entertaining story and I recommend it.
Check the WRL catalog for The Billionaire’s Vinegar
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