How to Market Vinegar to Billionaires

With wine prices soaring, how much would you pay for a bottle of vino? Is your usual wine under $15 or is it a bottle of Two Buck Chuck from Trader Joe’s? Either way, if you’re into adventure and wine, read The Billionaire’s Vinegar. Outlining the rise and fall of the super expensive wine market, Benjamin Wallace describes with Sherlock Holmesian detail, every person, place, and thing of, as the subtitle says, The Mystery of the World’s Most Expensive Bottle of Wine stemming from the discovery of a cache of eighteenth century wine in a Paris cellar allegedly belonging to Thomas Jefferson.

The book begins with the history-making 1985 auction of one of the first Jefferson bottles, a 1787 Lafite, inscribed with the initials “Th. J.” Led by Christie’s auctioneer Michael Broadbent, the founding director of its new wine department, the bottle sells for $156,000 to Kip Forbes, son of Malcolm Forbes, founder of Forbes magazine. The bottle was purchased for one purpose: to be displayed in a gallery, alongside many other authentic Jefferson artifacts, in the Forbes building. It never ends up being tasted or even drunk, unlike the fate of the other Jefferson bottles.

All the Jefferson bottles could be traced back to one man, a German wine collector by the name of Hardy Rodenstock. Working in the music business, among other ventures, he was known to embellish the history of his past and his name, Rodenstock threw lavish wine tastings—his first in 1980—for his customers, each one outdoing the previous. In 1985 he discovered the cache of so-called Jefferson bottles, but never revealed the specifics of the location of the discovery or the previous owner. Many wealthy individuals bought bottles directly from him or at auction. But by the early 1990s—a decade where the wine market was awash in fakes—Rodenstock’s customers began to notice that certain specific aspects were off with the bottles of wine that were being presented at the mega-tastings. At first it was assumed that a bottle of many hundred years should taste awful yet faintly of wine, but when bottles began turning up of vintages and sizes that could not possibly exist according to French wine houses, people began to wonder.

This book makes the reader wonder: Is it really that easy to fool people into believing anything about wine? It seems so. If a cask of wine discovered in a Roman cellar allegedly belonging to Caesar turns up for sale, I’m sure someone will bite.