Part detective caper, part wine history, The Billionaire’s Vinegar by Benjamin Wallace is an intricate exposé about the “fake wine” importer Hardy Rodenstock and his quest to sell the world’s most expensive bottle of wine, or in this case, bottles of wine. A bottle of the infamous 1787 Château Lafite Bordeaux wine, with the etched initials Th. J., was purportedly owned by founding father and third President, Thomas Jefferson. That particular bottle of wine sold at a London Christie’s auction for $156,000 in 1985 to the Forbes family, the highest price paid for a single bottle of wine to date.
Author Wallace regales readers with multiple accounts of lavish three-day marathon wine tastings hosted by the imposing Rodenstock, and other equally heady social wine gatherings held in the pretentious high society wine circles in the 1980’s both in the States and abroad.
Anecdotes from Jefferson’s days serving as Foreign Minister to France circa 1785-1789, detail his great love of wine and interest in viticulture. His journal indicates the shipping of thousands of vitis vinifera root stock to the United States, hoping to successfully plant and cultivate a vineyard with french varietals at his home in Monticello.
While Jefferson was well-documented as a wine aficionado and collector, the provenance of the 1787 Château Lafite puzzled scientists and collectors alike. Carbon dating tests were performed on the sediment in the bottles and the corks, glass and labels were scrutinized for authenticity.
Other wealthy collectors, such as Bill Koch, would join the elite ranks and purchase Bordeaux wine from Jefferson’s supposed “extended collection” only to later sue Rodenstock and the auction houses that sold the “fake wine” to him.
It would be many years for the truth to be finally revealed. Wallace engages readers in this well-researched page-turner novel. The Billionaire’s Vinegar has enough historical value even if the reader has little interest in wine.