Wine Book Review:Billionaire’s Vinegar


written by Michael Oudyn

In 1985 a bottle of 1787 Bordeaux wine is sold at Christie´s auction house for $156,000.   Benjamin Wallace tells the story. It starts with Thomas Jefferson, America´s third president and first world-class wine geek.  He is leisurely travelling through France´s major wine regions compulsively taking notes despite the awesome challenges facing his new country and the mounting turmoil of revolutionary Paris. At one point he methodically orders caseloads of the great wines of the time (Haut-Brion, Latour, Margaux, Lafite) but, due to the political chaos, they never arrive. Or do they? Fast forward to the 1980s. A substantial stash of 18th century wine is found in Jefferson´s old Paris neighborhood. The bottles are engraved with Jefferson´s initials (“Th. J.”).They find their way into the hands of secretive German wine expert Hardy Rodenstock who keeps the facts  hazy.  The resulting mystery gives rise to dark rumours of Nazi bunkers turned wine cellars and/or smuggling rings from Communist Russia. Of course none of this is in the catalog description, but it all adds to the mystique–and dollar value—of the Jefferson wines. At the auction Kip Forbes, son of the publishing Mogul, forks over the 156 grand for the 1787 Chateau Lafite. But soon doubts arise as to the authenticity of the wine itself, as well as the bottle, engraving, and label. And what is happening to the corks and empty bottles after Rodenstock´s jet-set wine tastings. Will state-of-art atomic technology settle the question by measuring the wine´s levels of tritium, an element  found in the atmosphere  only after the atom bombs of 1945?  I´ll leave you hanging here; Billionaire´s Vinegar is first and foremost a mystery story after all.

Billionaire´s Vinegar features a fascinating cast of characters starting with Jefferson himself, the man who would go on to spend 25% of his presidential budget on wine while trying to get Americans to drink healthly wine instead of demon rum. We get to know Hardy Rodenstock, the debonair German wine expert with a mysterious past and an uncanny penchant for happening onto very old, very expensive, wines. Is he the extraordinarily “charming, generous, and knowledgeable true wine lover” that Robert Parker describes? Or a devious con artist?  Michael Broadbent is the universally respected member of Christie´s board of directors with “the most experienced palate in the world” who puts his professional credibility on the line when he  vouches for the authenticity of the Jefferson wines. Prime skeptic, Cinder Goodwin, is a full-time scholar at Jefferson´s Monticello and the only woman of note in this macho world of the trophy wines and wine one-upmanship. There is even a cameo for Dodi Al-Fayed, Princess Di´s  playboy boyfriend, who spends $56,628 on a bottle of white wine, the record at the time.

It is yet another fascinating peek at the filthy rich of the 1980´s and their fabulous excesses, this time in the exclusive world of wine snobs, wine trophy hunters, and wine fraud. This episode seems an ironic retelling of the more serious frauds of that gilded decade: the second part of Marx´s axiom that: “History repeats itself. The first time as tragedy, the second time as farce.” I suspect most will consider wine fraud a victimless crime: Who really cares if the $2500-sip (sic) of a Jefferson Madeira is a fake. In fact most of us enjoy a delicious shiver of Schadenfreuden (“the pleasure we feel in seeing others feel pain”) when the “awe-inspiringly vulgar”  make asses of themselves. And we often pull for the scam artist who bilks the rich no matter how much of a weasel he may be.

In Billionaire´s Vinegar our own petty embarrassments and misfortunes are raised to levels unimaginable to us mortals. We´ve all spilled wine. But did our guests lap it off the floor like dogs and then dump on the wine as “cooked” or “like mud”? Some of us have even broken bottles at dinners. But were we suspected of insurance scam because we had had the bottle insured for $212.000?

I highly recommend Billionaire´s Vinegar. It is medium-full bodied with good crisp acidity and a lengthy finish. 92 points.


5 Responses to “Wine Book Review:Billionaire’s Vinegar”

  1. Phil Jones Says:

    Good entry. I’ll have to check out this book. Cheers!

  2. Nata Says:

    Notify me of follow-up comments via email. por favor!

  3. Anna Bennett Says:

    Loved the review, now I will read the book. Will you be in Italy in Oct? I am 70/30 as of right now.

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