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the billionaire's vinegar

25 february 2009

One of the sybaritic pastimes engendered by the economic boom of the past quarter-century was the explosion of the market for rare old wines. Bottles of wine share some features with other bubbly collectibles – coins, paintings, manuscripts, maps. Markets for them can be driven by illogical cupidity; they often trail uncertain provenances that suggest a five-finger discount; they are susceptible to counterfeiting. But wine is different from other über-collectibles. The whole point of acquiring it is ultimately to open it and disperse it among your friends. To that end, it comes in a sealed package. Old bottles of wine present a Schrödinger's-cat dilemma to the collector. You truly do not know what you're getting till you open the package. What you are getting may in fact be Godawful, a risk which is completely in the spirit of wine-collecting. Even experts may not be able to authenticate what you are getting. One can determine what a Rembrandt looks like just by visiting a few museums, but how many people have tasted a 1784 Château d'Yquem Sauternes? And who's to tell a bottle of 1784 Yquem what it ought to taste like? Finally, though proverbially you can't put new wine into old bottles else the bottles break and the wine runneth out, in point of fact it's easy to buy an empty bottle of 1947 Château Pétrus, fill it with a few hundred milliliters of 2007 Fish Eye Cabernet, and re-seal it with a facsimile cork.

The new-wine-in-old-bottles trick was practiced on a huge scale in late-20th-century Europe and America by forgers who parlayed decrepit glass and cheap fixings into the most expensive bottles of wine ever sold. Benjamin Wallace, in The Billionaire's Vinegar, centers his attention on Hardy Rodenstock, who announced in 1985 that he had stumbled upon an untouched trove of wine that once belonged to Thomas Jefferson. A single bottle from the trove was sold at auction to representatives of American publisher Malcolm Forbes for £100,000. The Forbes people promptly displayed the bottle under a spotlight in their corporate headquarters, whereupon its cork collapsed and fell into the wine, rendering the liquid unfit even for deglazing pans. Still, simply to own a bottle from Jefferson's stock, with Jefferson's initials and some sort of gunk inside that may once have sloshed to his touch, is a collector's dream.

Rodenstock began to sell more and more ultra-rarities. The wine world began to wonder how he could so fortuitously meet the demand for peculiar bottles, the very existence of which had been dimly guessed at, or not surmised at all. When gigantic "vertical" wine tastings came into vogue, ones that demanded scores of vintages of the same producer's wares, Rodenstock hosted the most extravagant of all in 1996, offering 125 separate years of Château d'Yquem. Where did he get this stuff?

Even the great palates of the world were hard-pressed to say whether Rodenstock's 125 years of rare Yquem were genuine, or whether they consisted of only a few vintages of more common Yquem poured into 125 different bottles. Despite the elaborate affective terminology of wine writing, distinguishing minor variations among châteaux, vintages, and even individual bottles by taste alone is the most subjective of sciences. Wallace demystifies wine connoisseurship.

Harry Waugh, the English wine merchant and writer, was once asked how often he confused Bordeaux with Burgundy. "Not since lunch," he replied. (48)
To someone like me who loves wine and its attendant esoteric knowledges but can be hard-pressed to distinguish Malbec from white Zinfandel, such comments are a great relief. It is not that all expertise about wine is phony; far from it. It's that the appreciation of great wine is an irreducibly subjective interaction between material, senses, and language.

So irreducible is this complexity that even the world's most advanced analytic chemists cannot resolve the scale of Rodenstock's fakery. Yet fakery there certainly was, whether Rodenstock was its perpetrator or, just maybe, its victim. Rodenstock defaulted in a 2007 legal case brought by a buyer dissatisfied with his dubious wares. Officially, therefore, he has been discredited. But Wallace is circumspect about convicting Rodenstock of forgery; the facts are just too hard to determine. For that reason, The Billionaire's Vinegar trails off instead of coming to a rousing conclusion in court.

But it's a fascinating read, full of wine lore and human intrigue. The Billionaire's Vinegar recalls Miles Harvey's Island of Lost Maps (2000), about thief Gilbert Bland, who readily supplied collectors with tons of extremely scarce maps (by the expedient of taking them out of libraries under his jacket). Bland's maps were at least real. The Rodenstock case is even more reminiscent of the tale of manuscript forger Mark Hofmann, documented in Simon Worrall's Poet and the Murderer (2002). Just as old wines can be forged by using old empty bottles, old documents can be forged on old blank paper, and then sold to collectors who can't quite believe that their finds are too good to be true.

Wallace, Benjamin. The Billionaire's Vinegar: The mystery of the world's most expensive bottle of wine. New York: Crown, 2008.