They were, to quote The Maltese Falcon, the stuff that dreams are made of—several bottles of wine discovered hidden behind a brick wall in Paris, most seemingly dating from 1787, and all bearing, etched into the glass, the initials “Th.J.” The first bottle went at auction for $156,450, still the record for a single bottle of wine, but almost as soon as the gavel fell questions arose about their authenticity. What followed was a story that Dashiel Hammett would have loved, with private eyes, millionaire wine collectors, and international fraud—a story told last September in a memorable New Yorker article by Patrick Radden Keefe about the so-called Jefferson wine bottles. Keefe, who could be Quentin Tarantino’s good-looking twin, was in town last week to speak at the Miller Center. Afterwards I cornered him for a chat. Not about the smuggling of Chinese immigrants into the United States, the topic of his upcoming book, but about really important things, namely those bottles of wine that may, or may not, have belonged to Thomas Jefferson.
Uneerie similarity: Patrick Radden Keefe sees no difference between Thomas Jefferson, who went bankrupt trying to support his huge wine habit, and the wine collectors who seem willing to go bankrupt fighting over ancient bottles of wine they may never drink.
“I had been really interested in the way globalization was affecting crime,” he said as to how he’d decided on the story. “ …In a way, the wine world was…a big con waiting to happen.” For five months, Keefe studied the “unbridgeable philosophical gap” between the people in the wine world that believed the bottles were real, and the historians at Monticello who were fairly certain they were not. “For the historians,” he said, “the documents are key,” and Jefferson’s meticulous records show no evidence of his having bought any wine from the 1787 vintage, or of ever having bottles engraved with his initials. But for the connoisseurs and critics desperate to taste historic wine, such things, Keefe found, were irrelevant. “Taste,” he told me, “this sort of special thing to which they have access” trumped everything. Even the facts.
He spent a lot of time “poking around in the wine cellars of Monticello” and “soaking in the ambiance” of Thomas Jefferson, who was himself, Keefe points out, “kind of a nutty collector.” Any similarities between Jefferson, who went bankrupt trying to support his huge wine habit, and the wine collectors who seem willing to go bankrupt fighting over ancient bottles of wine they may never drink? “Yeah,“ Keefe said, laughing, “definitely.”
And did Keefe think the bottles were fake? To answer he told me about a scene that comes at the end of the article, when he finally holds one of the bottles in his hands. It feels cold and heavy, and as he stands in the “incredibly theatrical” wine cellar of a 35,000-square-foot house (that also contains an art collection valued at hundreds of millions of dollars), he has what he calls “an emperor’s new clothes moment.” “When [I] actually handle the bottle, and [the initials are], like, etched into the side, I was just going, ‘What?’ It just seems so obvious.”
“There’s an innocence to it,” Keefe said of the “insular universe” of people who love old wine so much they can be blinded by three little letters etched into glass. It was good enough for the collectors that the wine had Jefferson’s name on it, and good enough for the critics that it tasted incredible. “You have to want to believe,” Keefe said, “in order to actually buy that.”
But perhaps it matters little. Maybe, Keefe posited, it was ultimately a victimless crime. Compared to the other stories he has worked on—government espionage, or immigrants literally dying to get into our country—the stakes here were comparatively low. “At the end of the day,” he said, “it’s a bunch of rich guys drinking fake wine.”