Tuesday, June 3, 2008


Early this morning I finished The Billionaire's Vinegar, the mystery of the world's most expensive bottle of wine by Benjamin Wallace. I thoroughly enjoyed the book because it brought back a lot of memories. So, this piece is not a review of the book, just some observations and remembrances.

To summarize the story, it is about the "discovery" in Paris of bottles of wine purportedly owned by Thomas Jefferson and the subsequent chaos ad hullabaloo surrounding them. The story is a veritable who's who of the wine scene in the 1980's and 1990's, because nearly everyone seems to have been involved in some form or another. Here's a brief list; Hardy Rodenstock, Michael Broadbent, Serena Sutcliffe, Marvin Shanken, Jancis Robinson, Robert Parker, the Forbes family, Georg Riedel, and more winery owners and winemakers than there are wines in my cellar.

At the time this story began I remember following it in the pages of The Wine Spectator and remember most of the events and wine tastings referenced in the book.

As another brief summary, the book tells the story of Hardy Rodenstock, a mysterious German, who claimed to have discovered the Jefferson wines in Paris, and who throughout the 80's seemed to be the one person who could find almost any wine someone with means was willing to pay for. A 1787 bottle of Chateau Lafitte was auctioned by Christie's and purchased by the Forbes family for $156,000.

It took more than 20 years but in the end the wine turned out to be fake, as did a more than significant number of other wines connected to Rodenstock. The book is well written, seemingly well researched, and a fun read.

Decanter Magazine, for which Michael Broadbent has been a long time contributer recently published and article where doubts were raised about the accuracy of the book. I can't comment on that but Broadbent's portrayal in the book in my eyes is not that of a villain, but of someone duped by a con artist. Rodenstock was so good at the scam that he came close to disproving the last part of Abraham Lincoln's adage that you 'can fool some of the people all of the time, and all the people some of the time, but you can't fool all the people all the time.' Broadbent reminds me of a kid at Christmas who just knows the next package he opens is going to be the one thing he really and truly wanted on his list of 20+ items. He so wanted to believe the story that he ignored every sign that told him he shouldn't believe it. In short, he comes across as a human with faults, and that really isn't a bad thing, even if he cant seem to admit it.

Rodenstock comes across as the ultimate con artist, and one has to admire the fact that for 20 years he totally fooled a significant number of intelligent people. I had an aversion and a dislike for him when the events were happening, and that same distaste arose again when reading this book, but I have to admit "the con artist was good."

The book is simply a great illustration of excess and the length some people will go to to procure it. It seems that there is not a single person portrayed in this book who would be happy with a decent meal and a nice $20 wine to go with it. I felt that way at time I was reading the glowing articles on the vertical tastings of 100 wines from Chateau Lafitte in the Wine Spectator, and I still feel that way.

I highly recommend the book and I thoroughly enjoyed it.


Edward said...
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Dan McGrew said...

Very true that his later notes have to be considered 'tainted.'

I still have his original book before Rodenstock came on the scene, sort of like a pre-phylloxera edition, and I used it for years as a reference source for buying some older Bordeaux when they were still affordable.

Once Rodenstock infected the world I ceased reading Broadbent. I just think it was a case of him wanting to believe so much that he lost his critical edge, and when things began falling apart he chose to defend bad decisions rather than admit them and move on.

Sad, and the saddest part is how easily Rodenstock fooled so many people.

Bartholomew Broadbent said...

To suggest that most of my father's notes relied on wines supplied by Rodenstock is totally ridiculous and untrue. Of the over 30,000 wines noted by my father a tiny tiny fraction were of wines supplied by Rodenstock, even of the thousands of wines mentioned in his books, not many were supplied by Rodenstock.

Of those that were, as Rodenstock was one of the biggest wine buyers at Christie's, many of the wines were known to have impeccable provenance.

The story is good but it is inconclusive and my father still believes that the wine is genuine because of all his research, which included carbon dating etc. He did the best he could pre-computer era.

However, he has never ever said that there is any proof, indeed, if you go back to the original catalogue, he is very careful to say that there is no proof that the wine is genuine.

Despite an 18 page catalogue of errors [a list of about 10 mistakes to each page in the catalogue] that my father has identified in the book, I still think it is a fun read.

The only thing that annoys my father is suggestions that it discredits a lifelong work of meticulous tasting notes. Such a suggestion is only proposed out of ignorance, so it doesn't matter but you should read his books and notes before making such allegations.

Dan McGrew said...


I'm not saying all the notes are tainted, but one still has to be suspicious about the older vintages that Rodenstock supplied. I really have no interest other than a mild curiosity about wines that old.

The wines I could afford when I was buying some older Bordeaux (and I'm talking the 70's here) were generally second growths or lower. Your father's book was invaluable. I still read the original book occasionally and thoroughly enjoy it.

I have no ill will toward your father at all, I just think he fell victim to a con artist.