'The Billionaire's Vinegar' by Benjamin Wallace

Uncorking the past proves a costly venture


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Benjamin Wallace takes readers deep into the world of old wine, where collectors value not only the provenance of the bottle, but also seek out bottles so old that they are unlikely to be even drinkable.

Unsurprisingly, residents of this small and rarefied world are quirky, impassioned individuals, and Wallace tells their tales and reveals their flaws with a directness that avoids sympathy, but never descends to ridicule.

   
"THE BILLIONAIRE'S VINEGAR"

By Benjamin Wallace
Crown ($24.95)

   

In 1985 at a Christie's auction, Kip Forbes, son of the late publisher and multimillionaire Malcolm Forbes, purchased a bottle of 1787 Chateau Lafite Bordeaux for $156,000, setting a record for wine sold at auction by tens of thousands of dollars. This particular bottle was purported to have unique origins of historical significance.

According to its seller, German pop-band manager turned wine collector Hardy Rodenstock, the bottle was one of a group found when a cellar was unearthed in Paris. The bottles were marked with the initials T.J.; Rodenstock claimed they had belonged to Thomas Jefferson.

Wallace takes his readers deep into the world of ancient wine, where simply the idea of owning a bottle of wine owned by Jefferson was enough to move collectors to spend fabulous sums of money, despite the fact that Jefferson scholars clearly rejected the bottles' origins, and the only proof Rodenstock offered was the somewhat cursory appraisal that verified that the bottles themselves were of the approximate age.

As more of these so-called Jefferson bottles were sold, and some of the wine was drunk, the deception entered the realm of wish fulfillment. The likelihood of bottles of even the greatest 200-year-old wine containing anything other than vinegar are so slim as to be absurd.

Yet, as Wallace chronicles, again and again even the most respected palates in the world (Jancis Robinson and Robert M. Parker Jr. to name a few) were pulled into the collective delusion.

They might exclaim that the wine tasted "so much younger" than they expected, and yet time and again they resisted the most obvious explanation: These bottles may have been old, but the wine that they contained was far younger.

The book handles a dozen tangential plots with Dickensian ease, from the scientific developments that allowed for new, more precise dating of wine to the family lawsuits of operatic proportion that served as the backdrop to "Jefferson" wine purchaser Bill Koch's determination to bring Rodenstock to justice.

"The Billionaire's Vinegar" is the rare book that transcends its topic, reaching out to anyone interested in a good mystery, while at the same time going into enough detail to be of interest to a serious wine drinker.


Restaurant critic China Millman can be reached at cmillman@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1198.


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