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Madness, Rack, and Honey: Collected Lectures
Mary Ruefle

The Billionaire's Vinegar: The Mystery of the World's Most Expensive Bottle of Wine

The Billionaire's Vinegar: The Mystery of the World's Most Expensive Bottle of Wine - Benjamin Wallace Somewhere around two-thirds of the way through this entertaining account of the controversy surround possible counterfeit antique wines, I began to hope that there’d be a definitive answer. The book seems to fall on the side of very, very strongly suggesting that all the rare old vintage wines produced by the book’s “villain,” Hardy Rodenstock, one time pop band producer turned rare wine dealer, were fakes, but for obvious litigation issues stops just short of outright accusation. I didn’t want to know the answer because of a curiosity about the truth of the matter. The real reason I wanted an answer was because I wanted all the rich pricks in the book to get owned – and hard.

To back up a bit first, though.

We start with the alleged rare wines. The most notable wines procured by Rodenstock are supposedly from a cache of bottles from one of the homes where Thomas Jefferson lived in France. Widely regarded as America’s first wine fancier of note, Jefferson’s memorabilia and documents depict a man who wished to turn his fellow countrymen away from the brutality of corn liquor and on to the finer vintages of Europe. He also was a staunch advocate of home grown experimentation in wine production. According to Rodenstock, a wrecking crew breaking through a plaster wall in a home scheduled for demolition found the wines, walled up to prevent their theft by revolutionary peasants after Jefferson’s departure back to America.

Wallace goes into great detail cataloguing the aspects of the bottle, the fine engraving of “Th. J” on each bottle, an inscription greatly contested by Monticello historians, the antiquity of the cork and the wax seal around it, and the provenance of the wine. Rodenstock, in his bid for authenticity, enlists the help of Michael Broadbent, in-house wine expert for Christie’s auction house whose seal of approval on the mystery bottles ignites bidding wars and much speculation. The first bottle to go up for auction is eventually snagged by Christopher “Kip” Forbes for $157,000. (Subsequently, this idiotic family with their mania for collecting put the bottle up for display in a lighted glass case where the heat ruined whatever was inside the bottle and accelerated the rot in the cork, leading to it falling into the bottle where it floated for however many hours it took for someone to notice.)

Further bottles from this supposed cache were purchased by the American editor of Wine Spectator magazine, by a mysterious man from the Middle East rumored to be a frontman for Dodi Al-Fayed, and by tycoon Bill Koch whose eventual lawsuit against Rodenstock brought the entire matter to a head. In the intervening years between Forbes’ purchase and Koch’s lawsuit, Rodenstock came under increasing suspicion for his facility with finding incredibly rare fine vintages and their amazing drinkability. He regularly “discovered” long lost stashes laden with dramatic historical value, though his finds often were of bottle types which disputed as ever having been produced, such as imperial magnums of certain years when vintner records reveal no such bottles.

Wallace tells the story in well-spaced intervals, pausing for chapters to detail Jefferson’s trip through France, the history of the vintners most usually faked, the debate between the pre and post-phylloxera years, and about the growing market of wines in England and America. It is this latter side note that leads to Koch’s interest in wines and the book’s most aggravating personalities.

Not exactly wine snobs, these mostly American collectors (joined by similar types from around the world) prove to be a trial to endure reading about. Hosting lavish tasting parties of “verticals,” that is, parties featuring one vintage over several decades and “horizontals” a single year’s great wines from various vintners, these wine collectors seem less interested in taste and flavor and enjoyment than impressing each other with the rareness of their cellars. The love of wine rapidly morphs into dick-measuring contests whose appeal is lost on those of us who aren’t involved. Wallace lovingly portrays their orgiastic excesses to such a degree that my inner Marxist was sliding well into Trotskyite bloodlust just to hear of their fancy balls.

That the book’s late middle section becomes dominated by these assholes is a fatal flaw in the story, but nonetheless an important one, because it is through Rodenstock’s desire to impress at these gatherings of wealthy experts (the better to tempt them to buy his suspect wares) that his eventual exposure as a likely fraud is made possible. It is through such events that Rodenstock tangles with Koch, a litigious bastard if ever there were one.

To get to the bottom of the matter, Kohc hired a team made up of a retired FBI agent and his private investigators, scientists versed in the art of chemical analyses based upon radioactive isotopes, and David Molyneux-Berry, the former head of Christie’s rival auction house, Sotheby’s wine department. Koch has filed suit in several jurisdictions against Rodenstock, cases that have yet to be decided.

In this sense, the book feels incomplete, as if the story was rushed out in anticipation of something. We end without any definitive proof that Rodenstock was completely faking these wines and without any on-record resolution to the court cases. The overwhelming bulk of the circumstantial is damning enough in my mind, but the book stops just centimeters shy of making such a claim.

This is dissatisfying for obvious reasons, but more so the book leaves me with a sense of unalloyed frustration. While I relish con artists who practice the short and long-term grift and live on their wits, Rodenstock is an unappealing faker without much in the way of charisma as he’s portrayed by Wallace. To some degree, this must be an authorial flaw, as such high stakes and such long-lived forgery schemes can’t survive solely based on the marks’ gullibility. The conman must have a charm that is obvious and compelling. As painted by Wallace, Rodenstock lacks this fundamental virtue. His victims, such as extravagant prick Bill Koch, are likewise repulsive creatures full of money and unattractive personal qualities. Shed a tear please for the Forbes family if you can.

With unpleasant players on both sides of the fence, Wallace’s book lacks a compelling figure for reader sympathy save for Michael Broadbent. A stronger focus on Christie’s wine expert and how damaged his reputation emerged from the scandal might have carried the day, but caught up in the fancy dress balls of the upper class wine fetishists, Wallace loses sight of his ace in the hole. Sidelined as a bit player for the book’s second half, Broadbent as figure of semi-tragedy could have added a pleasing top note of pathos to the work. As it is, the book is good enough for quaffing, but lacks what all wine makers hope for, cellar appeal.