The Billionaire’s Vinegar: The Mystery of the World’s Most Expensive Bottle of Wine
Crown, New York 2008, 336 pp.
Reviewer: Orley Ashenfelter
On December 5, 1985, in bidding that lasted 1 minute and 39 seconds, Christie’sLondon sold to Malcolm Forbes a single bottle of 1787 Chateau Lafite for £105,000 (then $155,000). Once owned by Thomas Jefferson, it was hoped the bottle would be in the Forbes Museum on Fifth Avenue by nightfall for the opening of a special exhibit devoted to America’s 3rd President. Much to Malcolm Forbes’s disappointment, the wine did not make it that night. Having become the most expensive bottle of wine in the world, the required cultural export license could not be procured in time!
This is the set piece that begins Benjamin Wallace’s truly riveting book Billionaire’s Vinegar. Of course, the wine was a fake. And the creator of the fake, former German Schlager music act manager Hardy Rodenstock, proceeded to sell millions of dollars of similar wines during the next 20 years. How the market for the fakes developed, and how billionaire William Koch caused it to unravel, forms the core of Wallace’s mystery story.
Wallace’s book has been optioned by a group associated with actor Will Smith and parts of it are written using flashbacks in way that really is cinematic. For anyone familiar with the wine world, the book will provide extraordinary enjoyment more or less as beach material. But this book has even greater potential to cross over to a mainstream audience than George Taber’s 2005 book Judgment of Paris (of which two movies are being made!).
James Lassiter, one of the movie’s producers told Variety that “for me, the movie is the unraveling of a mystery that comes down to a guy who punked the wine world.” According to the Urban Dictionary, “Being punked” is “a way to describe someone ripping you off, as in HAHAHA I punked both of you.” And I think Lassiter has it just right. Quite literally everyone was punked: Marvin Shanken, who publishes the Wine Spectator, actually bought a half bottle of Rodenstock’s wine for $30,000. Michael Broadbent, the distinguished Christie’s department head, certified the original bottle as genuine and thus set the stage for millions of dollars of sales on the private market. And Robert Parker’s praise of Rodenstock in his influential Wine Advocate pushed Rodenstock’s business into high gear.
But Hardy Rodenstock made one bad mistake when he punked William Koch. Koch, who collects everything from models of winning boats in the America’s Cup (he won it with his own boat in 1992) to the gun that shot Jesse James, put his formidable resources to work unraveling the mystery. The first thing Koch’s team of investigators learned is that Rodenstock’s real name is Meinhard Görke, and that his biography was highly fictionalized. They also learned that the initials ThJ that were engraved on the bottles must have been put there with a modern dentist’s drill, contrary to the claims of a now retired Christie’s engraving expert.
The story of faked wines is far from over, however. For one thing, it remains unclear precisely how the wines Rodenstock sold were created. As Dennis Foley, who published the now defunct rare wine magazine Rarities, said to me in an email, “Hardy has been found near the cookie jar, but he has not actually been caught with his hand in it!” Tests on Koch’s bottles for Cesium-137, a radioactive element that did not exist in the atmosphere before the hydrogen bomb test of 1952, do not reveal any indication that the wines in his bottles are younger than the 1952 vintage. Foley speculates that Rodenstock may have simply found some older wines without labels or markings. A dentist’s drill bit is then applied and, voilà, a 1787 Lafite is created.
In some ways the most interesting aspect of this story is how people want so much to believe in things, and thus they do. That is really the take away message of the book, and Wallace has done a lovely job of presenting it.