Cork Torque

Gotta recommend a wonderful book to you: THE BILLIONAIRE’S VINEGAR, by Benjamin Wallace. What a read. It’s a forensic mystery, a slice of history, a funny look at obsessives and oddballs, and, just maybe, the story of a truly audacious “long con.” And it’s all true.

The bottle in question.

On December 5, 1985, at Christie’s in London, a single bottle of wine was sold at auction for the equivalent of $156,000, making it far and away the most valuable bottle in history. It was a 1787 Chateau Lafite (later dubbed one of the “first growths” of Bordeaux, among the most ageworthy and expensive wines on earth) with this engraved on the glass: “Th. J.” The auction catalog noted that these “are the initials of Thomas Jefferson.” The wine was discovered, it was claimed, by workers tearing down a house in Paris who found a false basement wall and, behind it, bottles that had been preserved for nearly 200 years.  The auctioneer was Michael Broadbent, one of Britain’s most respected authorities on wine. The consigner was a German named Hardy Rodenstock, who traveled in the most rarefied circles of wine collecting. Both men staked their considerable reputations on the authenticity of this incredible find.

The bottle’s buyer was Malcolm Forbes, of the eponymous business magazine, who had no intention of opening it. He would display it alongside other Presidential relics in the Forbes Galleries, a small “museum” in the company’s headquarters building on lower Fifth Avenue in New York. These galleries were one of the city’s least-known but most enjoyable destinations; I took visitors there all the time. I saw the Jefferson bottle, displayed behind glass under dramatic lighting. Then one day it just wasn‘t there. Skeptical people were challenging its provenance, along with other similar bottles; the doubters’ ranks grew as more of them came to market.

The ol' tippler himself.

This book recounts the fascinating attempts to date the wine and true it up with Jefferson’s own obsessive records. You meet him, one of America’s first oenophiles (he tries bravely to establish a vineyard at Monticello), touring Europe’s vineyards and shipping case after case to other Founding Fathers during his five years in Paris. You swirl and sip with the many eccentrics who make up the rare-wine elite, and look over the shoulders of the scientific community that tries to bring technology to bear on the tantalizing puzzle. And you follow Broadbent, whose VINTAGE WINE is the greatest collection of tasting notes ever published; if the Jefferson wine turns out to be phony or adulterated, that would call into question many of his notes on other 18th- or 19th-century bottles, most of which had been served him by Rodenstock.

You don’t have to know a thing about wine to enjoy this book. The author gives you everything you need, and nothing extraneous, in a clear, concise narrative. It is as propulsive as an intense mystery, for that’s what it essentially is. It will make you laugh at times, recoil in horror at others. It could inspire a terrific movie, and one is in the works. Don’t pass this one up.


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