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on June 14, 2008
As another reviewer noted, I thought that this book suffered from being published before the story was actually resolved. The first couple hundred pages are true page turners. The author has a nice writing style, and has obviously done his research on the subject of wine and the players in the story. But about two thirds of the way through the book, it starts to unravel. What had been solid focus on the story started to waver, and when the end arrives, it's unsatisfying and abrupt. It felt as if the story wasn't finished, but the author couldn't wait for the resolution. As a result, for all the breathless lead up, the story ends on an anticlimatic note.

So this is a really good book, except that it feels like an unfinished story, probably with several more chapters to go before it's played out. This is the problem with writing about true current events. The facts are still unfolding; it's hard to know where a tale "ends." Sometimes, that's not even clear with events that are clearly put into the historical bucket.
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It's not right to fool people, especially to make money from them. It's still fun, however, to learn about how suckers have gotten swindled, if the suckers aren't you or someone close to you. It's especially fun if the suckers are successful tycoons who are used to having the world and its denizens bow to their wills. It's fun, too, if the suckers are partaking in some particular form of snobbery, like the prestige that comes from buying hugely expensive bottles of wine. When a bottle went in 1985 for $156,000, the world swooned at the presumptuousness, and the press went wild calculating just how many hundreds of dollars each little sip would cost. Twenty years later, the fun is that the bottle was a phony, and the buyers of that particular bottle and of who knows how many others had been taken in by a very smart wine expert who eventually got caught. This is a fun story, told with verve and detail in _The Billionaire's Vinegar: The Mystery of the World's Most Expensive Bottle of Wine_ (Crown) by Benjamin Wallace. Wallace has researched different facets of wine history, so there is a good deal of science and social history in his book, and he has the eye for detail of a good mystery writer (it isn't surprising that this nonfiction book has recently been optioned to be turned into a movie). You don't have to be interested in wine to find this story of human foibles funny and instructive.

The bottle in question was auctioned by Christie's in 1985. It was a 1787 Château Lafite Bordeaux, and was presented as having been part of the cellar of the wine enthusiast Thomas Jefferson. It was engraved "1787 Lafitte" (the way they spelled it then) and had the initials "Th.J." Christie's was the most prestigious of auctioneers in the department of fine and historic wines, and it vouched for the authenticity of the bottle. The wine had been found and placed on the market by a German wine dealer named Hardy Rodenstock, who had previously been a pop-band manager. Rodenstock refused to say who sold the wine to him, nor how many other bottles there were. But he was doing a great business in very rare, very old wines, and customers were in those days eager to buy his finds, whether he would reveal their provenance or not. Neither Christie's nor potential buyers took the simple step of checking with the museum staff at Monticello, Jefferson's home, to see if there were any record of such a purchase by him. Jefferson was meticulous, even obsessive, about documenting his purchases of wine and everything else, so there should have been a record. There was none. Rodenstock's silence on where his fine old wines were coming from should not have taken two decades to foster suspicion in some of those who were buying from him, but such suspicions eventually started up. Wallace is exactly right about how the con game was played: "As with all successful cons, the marks and the grifter had been collaborators. One sold the illusion that the others were desperate to buy." Rodenstock made the mistake of selling Jefferson bottles to a litigious Florida tycoon who spent a fortune on investigators and laboratory tests to demonstrate fraud. Wallace cannot end his book with Rodenstock being convicted and sent to jail, but the arguments included in the book seem conclusive. Readers will be eager to hear about further legal news in the case.

There wasn't anything vintners could do in the seventeenth century to make sure that counterfeits didn't show up two centuries later, but Wallace explains that steps are being taken these days to make sure no future Rodenstock can pull the same tricks. Laser-etching of bottles or embossing them with particular marks is one step, as is using watermarked and ultraviolet-tagged labels. Another step is using particularly adhesive glue to affix the label, but this will irritate collectors who like putting labels in their scrapbooks. There will be future wine counterfeiters, but they will have to work harder. And that bottle sold at Christie's in 1985? It was bought by Kip Forbes, under orders from his father Malcolm Forbes. The father was furious that the son had paid so much, but he always had a yen for publicity, and realized that having such a headline-making bottle was just what he needed. He put it on display in a case specially highlighted, and the heat from the light made for just the opposite of a wine cellar. It shrank the cork, which fell in, and even if the wine was fake, it wasn't even wine after that, just the vinegar of this book's title. You couldn't ask for a more fittingly symbolic end to all the selfishness and self-importance that Wallace has illustrated in this fascinating tale.
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VINE VOICEon May 19, 2008
A volume about collecting rare vintage wine might seem an unusual topic for a real page-turner of a book, but Benjamin Wallace's "The Billionaire's Vinegar: The Mystery of the World's Most Expensive Bottle of Wine" is an enthralling exploration of the hype and mystery surrounding the mania of the 1980s and 1990s about pursuing and buying bottles of rare and expensive (!) vintages of old wine. The starting point of the book is the 1985 auction in which a single bottle of 1787 Lafite Bordeaux, a bottle supposedly once belonging to Thomas Jefferson, sold for over [..]

Wallace leads the reader over decades of intrigue and deception, as it becomes seemingly increasingly evident that much of such rare wine (including that bottle of 1787 Lafite) is fraudulent. The portraits of the people involved -- sellers and buyers and auctioneers and technical experts -- are well-drawn. What is perhaps most remarkable is that Wallace appears to have formed and maintained cordial relationships with almost every major player in the story, including the man widely suspected of being the chief wine faker, giving the author an unmatched view of the whole business.

Even if your only connection with wine is an occasional glass of grape with dinner, "The Billionaire's Vinegar" is a book almost guaranteed to hold your interest -- and to teach you more about wine than you have ever known.
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on July 13, 2008
As a wine writer for more than 30 years who knows some of the players mentioned in the book, I enjoyed the way Benjamin Wallace cleverly wove together history, the world of wine and France in particular and the hoax so many bought into. Not only does he chronicle an incredible array of details into understandable context with dexterity, he weaves in a steady thread of humor (Harry Waugh, the English wine merchant and writer, was once asked how often he confused Bordeaux with Burgundy. "Not since lunch," he replied."). The confusion and complicity of some of the world's best-known wine critics and auctioneers comes to light as the hoax unfolds. Some reputations are ruined because of seeming complicity.

One parallel that might have been pursued further: the brilliance of Bill Koch, the billionaire who exposed the fraud, and Thomas Jefferson, whose name was attached to the most expensive bottle of wine ever sold. Both were meticulous in their work and record-keeping. The fact that no records existed at Monticello of the so-called Jefferson bottles should have put the Rodenstock collection into question immediately. Then, with carbon dating and other modern technology, the Koch team exposed the fraud. A tale well told.
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on June 18, 2008
I read the first chapter for this online after seeing an ad for it in the NY Times. I was hooked and had to buy the book. It was a fascinating story, and taught me a lot about wine and its history. The writer succeeded in giving this nonfiction work and fictional feel and made it an easy read. My only complaint is that I did not feel the story had an ultimate resolution, and I was left wondering what happened next. That's the problem with nonfiction, you can't just make up the missing details.
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on January 8, 2012
This was one of the most disappointing 'best sellers' I have read in years. The book starts with a lot of potential, with a very interesting summary of the famed auction where the Forbes Family bought a supposed Jeffersonian bottle of wine for $150K. The book then covers some interesting history re Jefferson and wine collection, in general.

Then, around page 75 or so, the book completely veers off course and starts covering a variety of topics that eventually leads you to wonder, 'what is this book supposed to be about?" Truthfully, the book is about the strange subculture of rich people who collect wine bottles that are 200+ years old. The actual title is misleading because that only compromises a small part of the story.

Outside research indicates that Random House was actually sued for libel over some claims in this book and Random House settled (which is kind of amazing for a libel suit, suggesting the suit had merit). Further, it is beyond me why the publisher did not include photographs in this book - at the very least, of the controversial bottle (I assume the cover photo may be of this bottle but there is no confirmation of such). There should have been photos of the main characters.

In sum, I was very disappointed with this book - esp. after the potential it had in the first few chapters.
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VINE VOICEon June 2, 2014
It is amazing, if you have money, just what you can purchase. In this case, a really old bottle of wine that was supposedly owned by Thomas Jefferson. I can't say it is something I'd ever want to possess, but to each their own.

The Billionaire's Vinegar chronicles the auctions, private sales, findings, tastings, and pretty much everything having to do with wine from the eighties onward. Specifically, it delves into the mystery of the Thomas Jefferson bottles. Rare wine supposedly owned by Thomas Jefferson and auctioned off at great sums. Later, there would be controversy surrounding the authenticity of the bottles though and both the players (ultra-rich people who have bought these bottles), scientists (analyzing the age of the bottles), tasters, and others would get involved.

There were a lot of people in this book, and with the exception of a few that came up every chapter, it was hard to keep track of them. All the tasters, journalists, auctioneers, vintners, etc; there are a lot of people involved in the wine industry, and this book just tracked a small circle of them. I didn't really care for any of them though. Probably because I couldn't identify with any of them. Well, that and with the exception of the really sweet wines, it all tastes like vinegar to me (and it's why I like the title). I did find the history on Thomas Jefferson very informative though. I learned things about him that I never knew, especially in regards to his spending habits.

This book started off very interesting with the information about wine and the history lesson. But then it tapered off in the middle and became quite dry. I disliked the politics and the intrigue and the drama that the bottles caused, especially since nothing was ever resolved so the book didn't feel finished. I'm sure wine aficionados would have more of an appreciation for some of the people described in the book and would understand a lot more about the different vintages and bottlers. Or at least they'd understand more of the terminology that was used.

Not a great book but it did have some good facts and was engaging in the first half. History or wine lovers will probably enjoy it the most.

The Billionaire's Vinegar
Copyright 2008
319 pages

Review by M. Reynard 2014
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on June 13, 2009
Beyond the Jefferson bottle, this book reviews the world of old wines and fakes, without reaching a conclusion. It starts well, but after a couple of chapters, it changes subject and begins to use many hype words and name-dropping which for me have a negative effect. Then it get diluted and move in several directions without real aim and at the end of the book, one is left wondering what it was really about. A pity as the subject would have warranted a better approach.
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on July 30, 2008
Great fun read into the world of high end collecting. Big egos and big money mixed with inconclusive evidence. Quite a cocktail. Potentially dull as old nails, but the extensive research and excellent storytelling of the author delivers this eminently readable tale. How collecting has evolved from a small select group of true wine lovers into a frenetic state of egos, experts, finger-pointing and suspicions.

Broadbent and Rodenstock are the principal players in bidding up bottles of venerable yet questionable old wines; but this book features many others. From foolish status-seekers merely drinking money to the true connoisseurs, all have the collector gene and cannot stop. Several classic stories, asides and anecdotes makes for LOL reading. Some may say it is published too early yet I think it points you to where you can draw your own conclusions.
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on June 9, 2008
It's hard to know what to expect from a book, labeled a "mystery," which tells the true story behind the purchase of one bottle of wine. Granted, it was the most expensive bottle of wine ever sold. And while I like wine as much as the next guy, there's a limit to how much wine-related information I can digest (or perhaps should digest) as well as to how much interest I can muster for a transaction involving the expenditure of more than $158,000 for a single bottle of wine (what would that be, by the way, in today's dollars and how many people would it feed are questions that come to mind immediately). Notwithstanding my reservations, however, I found this book to be a well-written and well-researched piece of investigative journalism concerning what may well be one of the brashest hoaxes in modern history. It held my interest right to the last page. I was hoping it would go on, but the intrigue surrounding this bottle of wine has not, apparently, seen its last chapter - reality stinks like that sometimes.

The production of wine is indeed a complex business, and Mr. Wallace provides a very interesting overview of certain aspects of it, as well as a fascinating historical discussion of the development of America's wine industry. What I found most riveting, however, was the author's portrayal of the psychological perspective of the serious wine collector and of some of the "experts." It was surprising to learn of the competitiveness and self-indulgence not of the various vineyards involved in the production of some of the finest wines in the world, but of those drinking it (or maybe just displaying it) and selling it. The descriptions of wine-tasting events and the extravagances associated with them gave new meaning to the term "excess", even while making my mouth water with some wonderful decriptions of the wines being served. In the end, it was so difficult to garner sympathy for some of these "victims" that I was surprised to learn that so many of them actually cooperated in the author's investigation!

Suffice it to say that it will probably come as no shock that the very self-indulgence that seems to qualify one as a true "oenophile" -- at least where these old (dare I say antique?) wines are concerned -- may well have set the stage for the major bilking that is played out in the pages of this wonderful book. It is also no wonder that this amazing tale ends, at least for now, in protracted litigation, which as Mr. Wallace describes in great detail, costs drastically more money (to investigate and attempt to prove the fraud) than could ever be recovered from its alleged perpetrators. Apparently this makes sense to someone, but perhaps only someone who would spend thousands and thousands of dollars on a bottle of wine whose provenance could not possibly be proven.

Even if you are not a wine crazed person, this story of greed, excess, fraud, and litigation will make you ponder the priorities of the frightfully rich in a whole new way. And it may even hold a lesson or two for the rabid collectors among us.
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