Book review: The Billionaire’s Vinegar – The Mystery of the World’s Most Expensive Bottle of Wine

“The Billionaire’s Vinegar – The Mystery of the World’s Most Expensive Bottle of Wine” by Benjamin Wallace (Three Rivers Press, 2008-9), is a great read.

I was a bit slow getting around to reading it, but better late than never. It is an amazing story and beautifully written. Indeed, it’s the most readable, entertaining and expertly-told wine story that’s come my way in a long time.

Wallace begins his story in Christie’s London auction room in 1985 when Michael Broadbent knocked down a bottle, supposedly containing 1787 Chateau Lafite Rothschild, to American billionaire and collector Malcolm Forbes for US$156,000.

This was the first of a procession of ancient bottles bearing the names of famous Bordeaux and Sauternes, engraved with Thomas Jefferson’s initials, that were supposedly part of a stash of wine discovered in a sealed Parisian cellar by German collector Hardy Rodenstock.

The story of these mysterious bottles, the famous and wealthy people who paid phenomenal sums for them, and the mixed results from tasting some of them, are detailed superbly.

Whether Rodenstock masterminded the biggest con ever perpetrated on the elite wine world is the big question. Who knew what these 190-odd year-old bottles should taste like anyway? Not even the world’s greatest experts had any experience of such wines. And how come they suddenly appeared in perfect time to capitalize on the mania surrounding the 200th anniversary of Jefferson’s time in Paris? It’s a great and thought provoking read.

One of the laugh-out-loud moments happens when a particularly silly man breaks a bottle of 1787 Thomas Jefferson Chateau Margaux while he’s foolishly showing it off in public.

The bottle, valued by the insurer at nearly 200,000 bucks, isn’t even his: it’s on loan while he tries to find a buyer. He’s at a ritzy dinner in New York at which the owner and winemaker of Chateau Margaux are guests. He’s walking across the carpet carrying it in a bag when he feels something wet running down his trouser leg, looks in the bag, and finds a chunk of glass has broken out of the bottle; wine everywhere. He goes home immediately, grief-stricken. He tastes some of what remains, and it isn’t even very good.

The chapter is headed: “A pleasant stain, but not a great one”.

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