Fake wine is all the rage lately. In April of this year, 22 bottles from top Burgundy producer, Domaine Ponsot, appeared for sale at a Manhattan auction with a hoped-for price of $603,000. But the wines were withdrawn when the winery owner, Laurent Ponsot, pointed out that several of the bottles were dated up to 37 years before the Domaine had ever produced those particular wines. The same auction house, Acker Merrall & Condit, is currently being sued for allegedly selling fake wine to Bill Koch, one of the protagonists of a new book by Benjamin Wallace called The Billionaire’s Vinegar.
The Billionaire’s Vinegar tells the story of several bottles of 18th century wine purported to have belonged to Thomas Jefferson—a story also told in a New Yorker article last September. The bottles were found by a German man with the (fake) name of Hardy Rodenstock, who throughout the ’80s and ’90s made a career of finding miraculous caches of stupendously rare wine and selling them for a lot of money. The first of the Jefferson bottles to sell at auction (a 1787 Lafite), was purchased by Malcolm Forbes in 1985 for the still record price of $156,450, and was carried out of Christie’s by his son in a bag emblazoned with the Forbes’ motto: “Capitalist Tool.”
But the Jefferson wines might very well be fakes, and if so, then Rodenstock has succeeded in making fools not only of some of the world’s richest people, but of its greatest wine experts as well.
Jefferson’s involvement is both the reason that the bottles are so valuable, and the reason that fakes are so hard to get away with. As one figure in the story says, “Jefferson was anal,” recording, in triplicate, every wine purchase he ever made. Again and again the exactitude of the third president, and the exhaustive work of the scholars at Monticello, is challenged by the wine lovers, who wield nothing more than their magical palates. At one point, Serena Sutcliffe, the head of wine sales for Sotheby’s auction house, and a Master of Wine, responds to doubts raised by Monticello about a bottle of Madeira claimed to have been Jefferson’s by saying, “There are many ‘Jefferson scholars,’ just as there are many Rembrandt scholars! Not to mention the Jane Austin Tribe.”
The Billionaire’s Vinegar is a lesson in the fallibility of Taste, and true obsessives’ aching desire to believe. As such, it serves as a good reminder to all wine “experts” (myself included) that our only real expertise is in drinking. We are, after all, merely scholars of taste, members only of the academy of decadence.
And there is decadence aplenty in this book, from wine tastings that last for seven days, to multithousand dollar bottles opened for breakfast. It is a tale of men so wealthy, and so covetous, that they spend $622,000 on JFK’s cigar humidor, and have wine collections that number 35,000 bottles, more than any man could drink in a lifetime. It’s a tale of rotting, bloated, gangrenous excess, of greed and pretension on a titanic scale. Perhaps in that it is perfect for our time.
I enjoyed the book immensely, yet it made me want to line the wine experts, collectors and critics up against a wall and shoot them. Partly because they are so arrogant and foolish, and partly because I’ve never been invited to any of their parties.