Wednesday, May 21, 2008

The Billionaire's Vinegar - A Review

Most, if not all of you reading this blog are aware of the most expensive bottle of wine ever purchased: the 1787 Lafite, supposedly owned by Thomas Jefferson, that was purchased at a 1985 Christie’s auction for the incredible sum of 105,000 British pounds (roughly $156,000 U.S.). And most of you are probably more aware than me regarding the account of the controversy that developed over the authenticity of this bottle, as well as others from the same collection that apparently belonged to the ex-president who was also known as a wine connoisseur.

These bottles were discovered by a fellow named Hardy Rodenstock. It seems that Rodenstock had a knack for sniffing out very rare and very old wines, making quite the name for himself in the wine world for doing so, while getting rich in the process.

Rodenstock never revealed any details of his discoveries, however. It was this lack of information combined with suspicions that arose among parties who purchased the wines and those who investigated them that created rumors that these and other bottles found and subsequently sold by Rodenstock were fakes.

You can read articles on Wikipedia and The New Yorker that present good synopses of the events surrounding the controversy that still exists today. And/or you can read a more elaborate account in the form of Benjamin Wallace’s new book, The Billionaire’s Vinegar - The Mystery of the World’s Most Expensive Bottle of Wine.

This was the most fascinating book I’ve read in a long time. My copy was an advance, uncorrected proof edition supplied by the publisher but I’m sure the final edition is substantially the same.

From the beginning Wallace had me eagerly turning the pages to see how this mystery would unravel.

Along the way we are introduced to an interesting cast of characters: the well-known wine critics, the very rich who could afford to purchase these rare old bottles, those who conducted investigations to ferret out the truth behind the bottles, Bordeaux chateau owners and principals, and the man behind the bottles, Rodenstock himself.

It’s all put together smoothly with an engaging writing style that ensures there’s never a dull moment. Wallace did a great job of building up the suspense, starting with the auctioning of the famous bottle and continuing with the increasing suspicions of various parties regarding the authenticity of that and other bottles discovered and sold by Rodenstock, and what was done to investigate that authenticity (or lack thereof).

About the price Forbes paid for the wine: $156,000. That’s an exorbitant sum of money, but let’s put that into perspective in terms of what it means to someone who is a billionaire. That represents .000156 of $1,000,000,000. Let’s compare that against a more “normal” sum of money that a person might have or earn, such as $50,000. .000156 of $50,000 is $7.80. So a billionaire purchasing a bottle of wine for $156,000 is relatively speaking, like a more “average” person spending $7.80 on a bottle of wine. Heck, drop in the bucket! Even a ‘two-buck chuck’ wine to a billionaire would then be a $40,000 bottle of wine. Peanuts!

I write pretty lame book reviews but let me just say that the book rates a no-brainer two thumbs up from me. I doubt that you will be disappointed; it’s fascinating! Here is the link to the product page at if you are interested: The Billionaire's Vinegar

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