How a wine hustler convinced the oenophile elite that he had found Thomas Jefferson's stash
The Billionaire's Vinegar:
The Mystery of the World's
Most Expensive Bottle of Wine
By Benjamin Wallace
Crown; 319pp; $24.95
The family of the late media mogul Malcolm Forbes made headlines in 1985 when it paid at auction the record sum of $156,000 for a single bottle of wine. But this was no vin ordinaire. The 1787 Chateau Lafite Bordeaux was believed to have been owned by President Thomas Jefferson before it slipped from sight, only to be found almost two centuries later in the basement of a building being demolished in Paris. At least that was the story that spurred the Forbes clan and a parade of other moneyed—if not very diligent—wine aficionados to go to great lengths to own this and the two dozen other bottles sharing its supposed provenance.
The twisted saga of how the Jefferson bottles first enthralled and then shamed the world of fine wine is the subject of Benjamin Wallace's fascinating The Billionaire's Vinegar: The Mystery of the World's Most Expensive Bottle of Wine. With plenty of detail, richly quirky characters, and restrained pacing, Wallace introduces us to the rarefied world of high-end wine. Part detective story, part wine history, this is one juicy tale, even for those with no interest in the fruit of the vine.
At the center of the story is Hardy Rodenstock, a secretive German manager of pop bands with an uncanny knack for ferreting out very old bottles of fine French wine—especially those predating the phylloxera epidemic that decimated European grape vines in the late 1800s. Not only was Rodenstock a whiz at finding scarce 18th and 19th century bottles, he could unearth them in the rare, oversize bottles (magnums or jeroboams, for instance) most prized for their aging potential. "It seemed strange that the bottle hunter raising his shovel in triumph was invariably Hardy Rodenstock," Wallace writes.
If you think there may be a little too much coincidence in Rodenstock's success as a sort of Indiana Jones of old vintages, you know where this is headed. But Wallace treats us to some wonderful wine characters along the way. One of the most intriguing is Bill Koch, a member of the wealthy family that owns the diverse, privately held Koch Industries, and the purchaser of four of the Jefferson bottles. Koch was no softie: This is a man who once subpoenaed his own 82-year-old mother. Although Koch had spent only $500,000 on wines that could be tracked back to Rodenstock, he shelled out $1 million on investigators and high-tech testing to prove the German a fraud. Still, Rodenstock—who has consistently defended his integrity—managed to sidestep Koch's 2006 U.S. court challenge by refusing to participate or to come to the U.S.
Even wine guru Robert Parker (who writes a column for this magazine) may have fallen prey to a Rodenstock public relations coup. In 1995 the German served Parker an obscure l'Eglise Clinet Pomerol, which the über-critic then trumpeted in The Wine Advocate. "Rodenstock began boasting that, before the tasting, he had bought up all the old l'Eglise Clinet on the market, confident that Parker would award high scores and send the wine's price soaring," notes Wallace.
From the beginning, the evidence linking Rodenstock's purported Jefferson-owned bottles with the former President was circumstantial at best. While his initials were engraved on the bottles, there was no record that he had ever owned them. In fact, neither Christie's, Sotheby's, nor their numerous buyers bothered to contact the Jefferson museum at Monticello, where there are extensive records of the Virginian's every purchase for decades. They would not have found much to support the claims. Plus, Rodenstock's 20-year refusal to identify where he'd found the wines should have set red flags flying from the start.
How could this happen to so many people who should have known better? Wallace blames it on the all-too-human desire to possess something that others cannot. To be able to quaff a vintage chosen by early America's greatest statesman and foremost connoisseur is something only a few can hope to experience. And that tantalizing bait made these well-heeled oenophiles almost-too-willing victims. "As with all successful cons, the marks and grifter had been collaborators," writes the author. "One sold the illusion that the others were desperate to buy." Luckily for readers, Wallace has made the unmasking of this deceit as delicious as a true vintage Lafite.