The Billionaire’s Vinegar

Are you a wine connoisseur or do you have trouble distinguishing between red and white?  How much are you willing to pay for a good glass of the bubbly?  Benjamin Wallace solves the “mystery of the world’s most expensive bottle of wine” in his nonfiction tale of The Billionaire’s Vinegar.

Wallace’s research centers on an 18th century bottle of wine, allegedly owned by Thomas Jefferson, mysteriously discovered and auctioned by Christie’s.  Wallace chronicles the sale and resales, orchestrated by Hardy Rodenstock, the finder, and Broadbent, the seller.   The wine is authenticated in European laboratories, with an historical accounting of Thomas Jefferson’s collection, yet the Monticello curator disclaims the bottle’s authenticity.   When the wine is later denied its vintage by physicists with radioactive dating technology,  Bill Koch, owner of some of the few rare bottles and with all the resources a billionaire has to cure his  sour taste over being had, sued Rodenstock and Christie’s for selling counterfeit wine and uncovered the

“lab where he makes the bottles…you know {like} the movie Catch Me If You Can?…

No one seemed to be paying attention to the experts, however, even when the initials on the label are not the abbreviation Jefferson used – Th: J.     Rodenstock with his “audacity…as a good con man” smoothly dismissed any discrepancies and  kept the money flowing.

Wallace writes the information with the tone of an amazing adventure and fascinated amusement, subtly ridiculing those with money trying to be elitist.  He includes some funny incidents of corks slipping into bottles and disappearing, bottles breaking spontaneously, and tastings gone awry.  He also chronicles all the nuances of growing, storing, bottling, labeling, and selling wine – too much detail for me.

Even skipping the minutiae, supported by over 30 pages of references, I still enjoyed Wallace’s story, and appreciated his final comment: although Jefferson did collect wine “from the châteaux,” it was to drink, not to hoard or display.

In his later years, “Jefferson was drinking cheap table wine, and very happily so.”

I could relate to that.

Related Article:  The Jefferson Bottles from The New Yorker