Crown, 336 pp., $24.95
Wine and fraud have gone together for as long as wine has been made. Unscrupulous Roman vintners thought nothing of adding fake Pompeiian seals to amphorae of wine made elsewhere, or passing off lesser wines as finest Falernian. They beefed up poor vintages by adding lead, too, in a pre-modern act of octane boosting.
Pliny the Elder lamented that “not even the greatest can enjoy pure wines anywhere. . . . Trade morality has come to such a pass that only labels and cellar names are sold, and the must is adulterated while it is still in the press.” More than a millennium later, Chaucer’s Pardoner warned his listeners against the “wine of Spain” that “mixes craftily/with other wines that chance to be near by.” In 1709, the essayist Joseph Addison complained of the “fraternity of chymical operators . . . who squeeze Bourdeaux out of a sloe and draw Champagne from an apple.”
By the mid-18th century, with the wine trade now fully established, even the more reputable Bordeaux merchants were routinely blending fine claret with rugged wines from further south. High quality Hermitage from the northern Rhône region, sought-after in its own right, would be added to the best, with Spanish and Roussillon wines deemed good enough for the rest. This was done quite openly, and at least in part as a response to perceived customer demand. It even had a name. The pioneering French wine author André Jullien, in his early 19th-century Manuel du sommelier, describes what was known as travail à l’anglaise, which catered to the taste of the British drinkers who then provided perhaps the most significant foreign market for fine French wine:
The wines of the first growths of Bordeaux as drunk in France do not resemble those sent to London; the latter, in which is put a certain quantity of Spanish and French Midi wine, undergo some preparations which give them a taste and qualities without which they would not be found good in England.
Long after such practices had been (more or less) eradicated from Bordeaux they were still accepted in Burgundy, and for that matter in London. Until at least the early 1970s, many of the finest merchant-bottled Côte d’Or and Côte de Nuits crus on the British market were most likely confected from overproduced basic Bourgogne spiced with something more substantial from the southern Rhône. I always rather liked them anyway, I confess.
Benjamin Wallace’s riveting new book, The Billionaire’s Vinegar, concerns a wine scandal of an altogether more arcane kind. Its immediate effects were felt only by a handful of rich and often rather unappealing men, all of whom could easily bear the financial losses they incurred. And it involves wines that most of us cannot hope even to encounter, let alone drink. Yet it raises questions and touches themes that should interest us all.
Wine’s fascination has always been greatest in years when a high-quality vintage coincides with some momentous historical event. The 1811 vintage, for instance, acquired an almost mythical reputation for its association with the “Great Comet” spectacularly visible in the skies for much of that year. At auction in Bordeaux in 1868, 21 bottles of the 1811 Chateau Lafite sold for an extraordinary 121 francs each, some ten times the price of most other vintages on sale. Similarly, the 1945 clarets were long prized not just for their quality—it was a good, if small vintage, welcome after a run of decidedly poor years—but for the way they would always evoke the defeat of tyranny in Europe and the end of war.
In a field less rich in cultural and historical interest than wine, or one less governed by tensions among taste, sentiment and hard cash, it’s likely that the lines between real and fake would be more clearly drawn, and the extraordinary deceptions and self-deceptions Wallace describes could never have occurred. As it is, thanks to wine’s wealth of associations (and associations of wealth), Wallace is able to show how the fate of a single dubious bottle may shed surprising light on such varied and rarified topics as America’s historically complex relationship with Europe; the bizarre economics of modern speculative capitalism; the nature and value of authenticity; the timeless interplay of power, desire and greed; the psychology of the fabulously rich; and the triumph of hope over common sense. (Especially the last.)
The story begins, on the afternoon of December 5, 1985, in the dignified setting of the West Room at Christie’s auction house in London, with the sale of a dark, unlabeled, handblown glass bottle on which were engraved the date “1787”, the name “Lafitte” and the initials “Th.J”. Illustrated on the cover of Wallace’s book, it’s a handsome, intriguing thing.
There were a few low commission bids in the auctioneer’s book, but bidding in the room began at £10,000 and ended just a couple minutes later at more than ten times that amount: £105,000. The buyer was Christopher “Kip” Forbes, who had bid rather more than he had intended, but had at least fulfilled the instruction from his unpredictable tycoon father Malcolm to get the bottle come what may. It was flown to New York that same night in the Forbes family’s private jet. It was the most expensive bottle of wine ever sold.
Forbes, Sr., notoriously mean, was initially furious at the amount his son had spent, but gradually he came around. It’s not hard to see the allure of this particular bottle to a family of avid collectors whose acquisitive interests ranged from wine (albeit with a preference for first growth clarets from bad, cheap years) to historical curiosities and artifacts. (They owned one of Lincoln’s stovepipe hats and the opera glasses he was holding when he was shot.) The bottle would fit well into the Forbes display of American political memorabilia. For, as the auction catalogue rather coyly noted, “Th.J are the initials of Thomas Jefferson.”
The bottle was old, sealed and well-filled with liquid, and the initials were indeed those of the third president of the United States. But that, really, was all that could safely be said. The catalogue description of the bottle as “inestimable” was a punning acknowledgment that no one had a clue what it might be worth, or even really what it was.
Yet while, strictly speaking, no one was actually claiming the bottle was Jefferson’s, that was clearly what potential buyers were encouraged to think. If they chose to do so—and they did—it was in large part because they trusted the reputation and authority of auctioneer Michael Broadbent, head and founder of Christie’s London wine department and the man who accepted the bottle for auction, compiled the catalogue and personally conducted the sale. Broadbent, in turn, had vested his trust in the reputation of the seller who had consigned the bottle to him, a flamboyant yet enigmatic German going by the name of Hardy Rodenstock, whom he had come to know quite well.
They made an unlikely pair. Wallace describes Broadbent, every inch the patrician Englishman, as seeming grander than some of the aristocrats whose cellars he had catalogued and sold. That’s not far from the mark. As anyone will know who has seen Jonathan Nossiter’s wicked documentary exposé of wine-world foibles, Mondovino (2004), Broadbent’s exquisite manner suggests a distinguished elderly actor playing the late Duke of Windsor in vaudeville. It must go down a treat with the new super-rich collectors on whom today’s highly speculative wine world has come to rely.
Rodenstock is an altogether brasher proposition, a larger-than-life example of the new breed. Before entering the fine-wine business he had managed a succession of minor pop stars in the seventies, exponents of the jaunty, easy-listening Schlager style inescapable in provincial German shopping malls but otherwise, thankfully, not much heard—except perhaps in Milwaukee. His interest in wine was fairly recent, but he had made up for lost time by purchasing on a grand scale at auctions in London and Paris as well as in Germany, and by organizing, since 1980, a series of ever more spectacular fine wine tastings, both vertical (featuring many vintages of the same wine) and horizontal (featuring many wines of the same vintage).
At first Rodenstock was known only within a smallish circle of like-minded obsessives, mostly with self-made backgrounds similar to his own: successful flooring contractors, owners of truck dealerships, small-town restaurateurs. But he soon won a bigger reputation as an extraordinary “bottle hunter”, able to serve up a seemingly endless supply of some of the oldest and rarest wines anyone had seen. It was this that first brought Broadbent into his orbit, along with other influential wine writers, prominent collectors and the proprietors of leading wine estates who came to his extravagant annual dinners to drink old, rare bottles that even they did not possess. All this made Broadbent willing to accept the story Rodenstock told about the “Jefferson” bottle he submitted for sale.
The story was certainly an appealing one, involving the discovery of a hidden, walled-up cellar in an old house in Paris that was undergoing renovations. Such things do happen. The importance of wine in French national life—its place, even, in the nation’s understanding of itself—has seen vinous treasures spirited away to safety time and again at the first sign of impending threat. There’s a lively little book by Don and Petie Kladstrup called Wine and War (2001) that documents the lengths the French went to keep their best wines from the Germans through two world wars, and vividly makes clear just why it mattered so much to them. It’s possible that Rodenstock’s newly discovered Parisian cellar had been walled up in one of those relatively recent conflicts, too. But the suggestion was that it had happened much longer ago, most likely at the time of the French Revolution, and that the wines had lain there, undisturbed and in perfect storage conditions, ever since.
There were only a couple of problems with all this. Rodenstock would not reveal precisely where the cellar was. And his account of the discovery was surprisingly vague in some of its crucial details, not least the number of bottles found, which was to increase with improbable steadiness over time. But for Broadbent any doubts were outweighed by the evidence he felt he could draw on in support. He knew Rodenstock’s gift for unearthing astonishing rarities. A Christie’s glass specialist had said the bottle and engraving looked all right. And above all, there was the well-documented enthusiasm for French wines that Jefferson had shown during his time as U.S. commissioner and minister in Paris from 1784 to 1789.
Jefferson had been a wine enthusiast long before he ever saw Paris, installing a cellar at Monticello almost as soon as building work there began. Eager to launch an American wine industry, he planted vines on his property as early as 1771 and subsequently gave neighboring land to the Italian Filipo Mazzei to experiment with European varieties. But it was in France that he developed real expertise. In 1787, the vintage year of those mysterious “Jefferson bottles”, he made an extensive tour of the French wine regions, especially Bordeaux, questioning growers and winemakers about every aspect of their craft. He learned which were the best châteaux, who owned them, how much wine they made, how much it cost. He learned, too, all about the dubious practices of those Bordeaux merchants. No travail à l’anglaise for him. He bought on an extravagant scale, but in doing so he began to bypass agents and to place his orders directly with the châteaux owners, assuring a friend that “it is from them alone that genuine wine is to be got, and not from any wine merchant whatsoever.” He even asked the châteaux to organize and supervise the bottling of the wine themselves, a practice that would not become standard for another century and a half.
Jefferson’s claim to being the first great American wine connoisseur would lend obvious prestige and hence collector appeal to any bottles that might be firmly associated with him. But there’s a deeper, or more whimsical, interest, too. Jefferson had a rather ambivalent relationship to France. Unlike Benjamin Franklin, who defiantly strode the streets of Paris in a beaver hat, Jefferson wore a powdered wig, accumulated fine furniture and art for his house on the Champs Elysées, and generally relished European culture in its most sophisticated forms. Yet he longed all the while for the simplicity and empty spaces of rural Virginia, the only place where he felt that peace and true integrity were to be found. Wine allowed him to square that circle. An adornment to the most refined metropolitan society, it yet had its roots (quite literally) in the soil, and at its honest best it was a quintessential product of the agrarian world he prized above all else. It’s only a little fanciful to say that a bottle of French wine once owned by Jefferson would encapsulate some of the complexities, the tensions and the benefits of that early defining encounter between Europe and the newly-formed United States. Such poetic associations would add a large premium to any auction lot.
Alas, it was through the Jefferson connections that doubts about the bottle soon set in. Jefferson was not only a diligent explorer of the world of French wine; he was also an assiduous record keeper. No purchase went unreceipted; almost every discovery or transaction was written down. Yet researchers at Monticello could find no evidence that he had ordered 1787 Lafite, or that he had ever had bottles engraved with his initials. As the questions accumulated, it became clearer how many more “Jefferson bottles” there were out there. One or two appeared at auction, some were sold through brokers and dealers, and some Rodenstock had traded privately with friends.
There were doubts now about other bottles, too. Rodenstock’s talent for discovering rarities knew no bounds—anywhere from Scotland to Russia to South America, by his own accounts. It sometimes seemed as if a fellow collector had only to mention that he had one vintage missing to complete a massive vertical of a favorite wine and a suitable bottle would soon afterwards turn up. Large-format bottlings of the most sought-after wines—double magnums, jeroboams, imperiales—were another Rodenstock speciality. In many cases no one had seen such things before. Often the estate in question would have no record of such bottlings ever having been made.
It all unravelled quite rapidly. When some of the most extravagant among the new generation of German and American enthusiasts for fine and rare wines came to have their collections professionally appraised, they found them to be stuffed with fakes, many of which could be traced back to Rodenstock. These were mostly not men to mess with. Some tried to sue, and one or two settled out of court. But Rodenstock protested—continues to protest—his innocence, arguing either that his wines were indeed what he said they were or that he himself must have been duped. The reluctance of powerful men to lose face, combined with the difficulty of proving things one way or the other when dealing with wines that in some cases no one had ever tasted or seen, was enough to keep things quiet.
One victim refused to play along, however. Bill Koch, industrialist and yachtsman, spent half a million dollars on four “Jefferson” bottles and has since spent at least twice that sum in an attempt to get his money back, and, more important, one suspects, to show that no one can get away with taking him for a fool.
The investigation Koch has mounted into Rodenstock was first outlined in “The Jefferson Bottles”, a fascinating New Yorker piece by Patrick Radden Keefe. Wallace adds further gripping detail. The chase is led by a retired FBI man, covers several continents and employs retired police officers from Scotland Yard and former agents of the British security service MI5. It has discovered that the German’s real name is Meinhard Goerke, and that most of his biographical claims are as dubious as some of his wines. It has had the bottles’ contents (inconclusively) analyzed by a French physicist and the engraved Jefferson initials examined at Quantico. It has found a neighbor who claimed to have discovered blank wine labels and corks in an apartment recently vacated by Rodenstock. A New York court rendered a judgment in Koch’s favor, but the German, safe at home, declined to recognize its jurisdiction. The saga goes on.
Whatever the eventual outcome, one casualty has been the reputation of Michael Broadbent, built up over many years, as “the world’s most experienced taster” and its leading connoisseur of old and rare fine wines. Now in his eighties, still bicycling around London in his three-piece suits, he puts a brave face on things, and even retains some faith in Rodenstock and his wines. But his Vintage Wine book, long regarded as a bible in the trade, makes for rather sorry reading now. With hindsight, it’s clear that many of the oldest and rarest wines he thought he had tasted were sourced by Rodenstock. Descriptions such as “unusual”, “exotic”, “surprising”, “atypical” and “strange” take on altogether different meanings. Yet the obvious conclusion was never before drawn. There are frequent expressions of wonder at where Rodenstock can possibly unearth these extraordinary wines, yet no evidence of much real desire to find out. Broadbent, faced with bottles he had never hoped to taste, just seems to have wanted to believe, even when all his experience should have told him to beware.
He was not alone. The mighty Robert Parker is perhaps as far removed from Broadbent as it is possible to get in terms of taste and attitude to wine. The thick, purple blockbuster wines that the Maryland lawyer admires, bursting with alcohol and dark, ripe fruit, often strike Broadbent (and not just Broadbent) as vulgar and artificial, designed to impress judges in tastings, but in real, civilized life almost impossible to drink. It seems a travesty to Broadbent’s admirers that the power of Parker’s unsubtle 100-point scoring system and his love of in-your-face styles now far outweighs the influence of more scholarly and cultured writers on wine, to the point that many winemakers now tailor their wines specifically to Parker’s taste.
In other words, Parker and Broadbent may be said to embody a relationship between old world and new that is as tense and complicated as anything Jefferson ever felt. Yet Rodenstock managed to mesmerize them both. Parker kept his distance to a far greater degree than Broadbent did, but he did attend a tasting in 1995 and described one of the wines he was served there—an unheard-of magnum of 1921 Pétrus—as “Out of this universe!” The chances of it having been what the label said it was are fairly slight.
Broadbent, Parker and the rest, faced with some improbable new vinous miracle, seem to have shrugged their shoulders and enjoyed it, whatever it really was. In producing wines that could have such an effect, Rodenstock was clearly not simply a commercial fraudster motivated by straightforward desire for financial gain. He made money, to be sure, but he spent it too, on an impressive and generous scale. By no means were all the wines served to guests at his lavish annual tastings counterfeit. The expensive majority were almost certainly not. And the fakes he did serve, as Parker and Broadbent, for all their differences, would agree, were often in their own way liquid works of art: vital, evocative missing pieces in an historical jigsaw that any obsessive wine collector would want desperately to complete. And they were often delicious, too.
Unfortunately, most modern wine fraud is a far cry from Rodenstock’s exotic, almost artistic forgery. It is a far cry too from the routine and often benign adulteration of earlier centuries. Indeed, commercial wine fraud is a big business, spurred on by the unfettered financial speculation that has now seen wine prices escalate to a level at which few outside Rodenstock’s world of tycoons, celebrities and secretive billionaires can afford to buy wines traditionally regarded as the best—and those who can wouldn’t dream of opening their valuable acquisitions. This has transformed the world of wine, and not for the better. Owners of the top estates now try to combat fraud with anything from infrared label markings to microchips. Auctioneers, brokers and customers view with suspicion almost every bottle of some very celebrated wines. Baron Elie de Rothschild of Château Lafite saw the dangers from the start: “The day I saw in Time magazine a photograph of a bank vault with a bottle of Lafite in it, I assembled my staff and told them: ‘the crisis has started’. Indeed, when you start to think of wine as an investment and not as something to be drunk, that’s the end.”
That unattractive end seems likely to be long and drawn out. With the global economy far from certain, wine remains an attractive alternative asset class—both a badge of status for the very rich, and a speculative commodity for investors who don’t intend to drink a drop. It’s a dispiriting prospect. The story of Hardy Rodenstock and his friends, and their colorful, topsy-turvy world of wine, throws it all into strange relief. Devotees of bogus history, improbably savoring the ghosts of ancient wines that would almost certainly have been undrinkable if they were real—they, too, were traders, but in vinous dreams; speculators, not always honest, in futures past. The film rights to both Wallace’s book and Keefe’s New Yorker piece have already been optioned. One wonders who will play Jefferson.