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Reviewed by Bruce Schoenfeld
Sunday, June 8, 2008

THE BILLIONAIRE'S VINEGAR

The Mystery of the World's Most Expensive Bottle of Wine

By Benjamin Wallace

Crown. 319 pp. $24.95

Fine wine is different from other collectibles. It not only gets more valuable with age, it actually gets better -- at least until it doesn't. And should an investor succumb to the temptation of using the wine for its intended purpose -- drinking -- it suddenly and irrevocably will be worth nothing at all.

That doesn't happen with paintings or antiques or first editions; enjoying them does not instantly eliminate them. But as soon as a bottling is released, the worldwide supply of it starts to dwindle. A bottle is opened for a dinner here, five more for a tasting there -- and the next thing you know, a couple of centuries later, only a few remain. Their scarcity ratchets up their desirability and makes the calculus between hedonism and capitalism that much more intriguing. Should you open a precious bottle and enjoy it, or hoard it for a few more years?

Somebody may have resisted the urge to yank open at least a few bottles of 1787 Chateau Lafitte (as it was then spelled) and enjoy them with a brace of partridges or an ascension of larks or whatever the French were eating at the time. Whether that somebody was Thomas Jefferson and whether a few bottles purported by a flamboyant collector to be from Jefferson's stash are actually Chateau Lafitte at all are mysteries that form the centerpiece of The Billionaire's Vinegar, Benjamin Wallace's entertaining look at wine forgery.

Wallace takes us back to Jefferson's European tour of 1787, a prolonged jaunt through vineyards and dining rooms in which he sampled Bordeaux even as the Constitutional Convention met back home. Educated by that trip, he started to order wines directly from top chateaux and to record his purchases meticulously. Tellingly, there's no record for the cache, engraved with the initials "Th. J.," that German collector Hardy Rodenstock insists was discovered behind a false wall in Paris in 1985.

Wallace spends a lot of time on Jefferson, but Rodenstock is the book's most compelling character. The "Th. J." wines were only the beginning. Rodenstock fed more and more rare bottles into the marketplace, 80 to one collector alone. He claimed to find them in odd places such as Argentina or in crawl spaces where they were kept from the Nazis. Or he refused to disclose anything about their provenance. Nevertheless, oenophiles wanted to believe. One of the purported bottles of 1787 Lafitte sold at auction to a member of the Forbes family for $156,000.

When he was not selling them, Rodenstock was opening sensational bottles at massive, weeklong tastings almost repulsive in their excess. For one event, he hired the famed Italian tenor Andrea Bocelli as entertainment. At an extravaganza devoted to Chateau d'Yquem, the world's most renowned sweet wine, he served 125 vintages, ranging from a 1784 (with Jefferson's initials) to a 1991.

Whether such bottles are genuine is sometimes difficult to discern. Few people have had the experience of repeatedly tasting vintages so old. Experts must factor in the possibility of great variation between bottles of the same wine, especially when the conditions in which they were stored are unknown. And as the bottles empty, the tasters are destroying the evidence.

Nevertheless, there were clues that something was amiss. Some of Rodenstock's corks seemed oddly short and suspiciously similar. Bottles were offered in large sizes not known to have been used by particular chateaux. Occasionally, labels seemed to be the wrong shape or color. And too many of the wines tasted bizarrely youthful -- or merely bizarre. Describing the vanilla-chocolate-mint aroma of one Rodenstock bottle, collector Ed Lazarus wrote that "I had never experienced anything remotely similar in an older Bordeaux, or in fact anywhere else, except perhaps at a Baskin-Robbins."

The slow unraveling of Rodenstock's reputation played out against a backdrop of extravagant meals, scientific examinations and loud polemics in several languages. Some veteran wine merchants compared Rodenstock's offerings to the Hitler Diaries and "a Rolex bought in Hong Kong" even as an esteemed Christie's auctioneer staunchly defended their authenticity. When the American billionaire Bill Koch, outraged at being duped, funded a detective effort worthy of Interpol, the net around Rodenstock began to close. In the end, even his identity turned out to be fabricated, and the world's top collectors were left gazing uncomfortably at their vast collections, wondering which wines are what the labels say they are and which are something very different. ยท

Bruce Schoenfeld is the wine and spirits editor of Travel + Leisure Magazine.


© 2008 The Washington Post Company

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