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Showing 1-10 of 95 reviews(4 star). Show all reviews
on October 19, 2015
Wine Whines
By Bob Gelms

The Billionaire’s Vinegar

How many out there like to drink wine? I thought so, me too. Well this book is an entertaining tome about mega rich people behaving over the top about super rare wines that, in the grand scheme of things, shouldn’t really be all that important. It’s also about super rich people getting ripped off for a mega amount of money and that’s always very entertaining.

The story in The Billionaire’s Vinegar dizzyingly revolves around a cache of Bordeaux wine from a superb Chateau circa 1788. That in itself would make this story drink splendidly. The real kicker in all this, and the aspect that had everyone connected to it panting like a thirsty man just in from the desert willing to drink just about anything, is that these bottles were owned by Thomas Jefferson. Wait for it – he also initialed all the bottles.

The man who found the Jefferson bottles, Hardy Rodenstock, is a rather mysterious German wine dealer with a suspicious past and a knack for discovering tremendously rare bottles of some of the world’s best wines. At the time of the Jefferson discovery, an American family with a love for all things Jefferson was supporting an exhibit of Jefferson memorabilia from their vast collection of Jefferson items. The family scion was sent to purchase the bottle at auction. He did and spent $165,000 for the one bottle of wine. I need to mention right here that we are talking about the Forbes family as in Malcolm Forbes and his son Christopher. They were hoodwinked.

There was suspicion from the beginning that Hardy Rodenstock had counterfeited the Jefferson bottles. There wasn’t any proof but there was plenty of suspicion. If you have the desire to counterfeit a bottle of wine The Billionaires Vinegar has a chapter or two on how you can do it and probably get away with it.

This is an intriguing peek into the highbrow world of rare wines and the super rich and what they like to do in their spare time. I was amazed at how cavalier the bottles were treated by the people who bought them. It was as if paying $100,000 for a bottle of wine was an everyday thing and once they had it, it wasn’t interesting any more. I don’t get it but I sure as hell would drink a glass if it was offered to me.

Shadows In The Vineyard

Maximilian Potter has written a riveting tale about a true-life criminal escapade perpetrated on one of the world’s great wineries, Shadows in the Vineyard: The True Story of the Plot to Poison the World's Greatest Wine.
Oenophiles have, more or less, treated the wine region of Burgundy as the bastard stepchild of its more famous sister over in Bordeaux. Those in the know, however, say that wines from Burgundy regularly outperform wines from any other region in France.

There is one Chateau that sits at the top of the pyramid. It is the Domaine de la Romanee-Conti, simplified to DRC. Wine experts consider wines from this Chateau to be the finest in the world and the most expensive wines from the Burgundy region. The terrior of DRC sits on the best wine growing dirt on planet Earth. It’s hard to deny this when you taste their wine.

The crime was a simple one. Blackmail. A mysterious villain, Jacques Soltys, living the life of a hermit in the woods, decides to cash in for the big score. He seems, to me, to be part chemist, botanist and vintner. He is a failure at almost everything he has tried including bank robbing, kidnapping and other illegal schemes.

Now comes Aubert de Villaine, the aristocratic headman and owner of DRC. He receives a puzzling letter that, at first, he disregards. It is, of course, a ransom note. De Villaine will pay the criminal €1 million. If not, the vines themselves will be poisoned. This scheme attacks the basic values and principles of what it means to be French. It is a crime so preposterous as to be almost unthinkable. It can be likened to blowing up the Jefferson Memorial unless you were paid $3 million.

This is a real crime that occurred in 2010 and, sad to say, it partially succeeded. There is a confluence of brilliant detectives, chemists and botanists who try to defeat Soltys. The good guys set up a very clever sting operation to catch Mr. Soltys. A lot happens; a lot.

In the annuls of true crime books this is right up there. It has a literary quality that is matched with Mr. Potter’s exceedingly dramatic pacing that creates tension you can swat at with a grape vine. This is for both lovers of wine and the folks who like true crime. This crime is dastardly and its solving is both clever and timely. I sure enjoyed Shadows in the Vineyard and I’m thinking you will as well.
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Could the bottle of Lafite, with the initials of Thomas Jefferson and dated 1787, awaiting auction at Christie's in London in 1987, possibly have been part of a newly discovered Nazi hoard? As Michael Broadbent, the head of the wine department of Christie's, prepared to auction off this bottle, the oldest authenticated bottle of red wine ever to come up for auction at Christie's, he knew that it would become the most expensive bottle of wine ever sold. Parts of the Old Marais district in Paris had recently been torn down, and some wondered if the bottle was found walled up in a basement. Others suggested that it had a Nazi history. Then again, Thomas Jefferson had sent hundreds of cases of wine home to Monticello when he left his job as Minister to France, and one of these cases may have been lost or stolen.

Speculation was rife because of the age and importance of this bottle, not just for its qualities as wine but also because of its historical importance. The bottle had been consigned to Christie's by Hardy Rodenstock, a German wine collector who refused to say exactly where it had come from, revealing only that it was from a hidden cellar in an unidentified 18th century house in Paris. The cellar supposedly contained a hundred bottles, two dozen of which, all from 1784 - 1787, were engraved with the initials "Th.J." After a bidding war, Kip Forbes, son of publisher Malcolm Forbes, was declared the winner with a bid of $156,000.

Questions began to arise about this bottle almost immediately. There was no evidence that Jefferson had ever purchased a 1787 Lafite, and in fact, Jefferson had recorded the purchase of only two of the four wines that Rodenstock had found. The engraving style on the auctioned bottle had never before been used by Jefferson, and all the other Rodenstock wines had exactly the same engraving style. "It seemed odd [too] that whoever first found the bottles would not have shopped them to the highest bidder, instead of automatically selling to Rodenstock." As several more of the Jefferson bottles came up for auction over the next couple of years, each one setting a new record, questions continued to arise about the bottles themselves, the amount of evaporation, and ultimately, even the instruments used to engrave the bottles. Unusually, at every tasting Rodenstock sponsored, his men secured the corks and sealing wax after the bottles were opened, and no one had access to them for testing purposes.

In the second half of the book, author Benjamin Wallace takes the reader from 1987 to the present, detailing the new techniques which can now be used (and were later used on the Jefferson bottles) to date bottles, wine, sediments, engraving, wax, and corks. High tech labs, with experts on everything from tests for germanium, thermoluminescence, carbon, and lead, create a fascinating story of how the wine market has evolved to the present and the safeguards now in place to prevent fraud of this nature. Benjamin Wallace keeps the excitement high as he details the search for information about the Jefferson wines and the eventual outcome regarding their "rightness." Well researched and filled with details about the wine industry, the book bears reading now, in light of recent decisions in the lawsuits brought by William Koch and the auctioneer, Michael Broadbent.
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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 March 27, 2014
This is a great education on wines and the world that loves them. If you read this you really will know a lot about wines in general.

It is an interesting tale of history--of Thomas Jefferson, the French, wines, and people. THe first two chapters sweep one off his or her feet.

It is in itself a great story--the only setback is the story is not yet finished--as countless reviewers noted. One can draw the conclusion how it will turn out and what will play out--but as of now we do not know. The lawsuits are still happening.

It was a fun peek at an elite world and a complicated product that most of us glimpse in the newspaper or some trendy magazine--and experience by the bottle or two we buy each month.

This book will give the reader a profound education on wines and be entertaining, too.
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VINE VOICEon January 1, 2013
As a non-drinker who couldn't tell a Haute-Brion from Martini and Rossi, I still found myself intrigued by the premise here and so I thought it would be a good, entertaining read. And indeed it is. A crazy-quilt of eccentrics people the world of collectable, rare wine. From the way more money than sense types who pay upwards of 20K for a bottle of something they don't actually have any idea of what it will taste like, to the haughty taste-maker / experts who's nod or frown determine such things, there is no end of curious individuals on display here.

But distant as this world may be to you, or at the very least, me, there is much to recognize here in the way of human nature: greed, deceit, wishful thinking, hubris, dissembling, decadence, foolishness, and one-upsmanship on a grand scale. Wallace delves deeply into the mysteries of the "Jefferson" bottles and their fabricated history. The story is compelling, highly-readable and full of twists and turns that lead from dusty, 18th Century cellars to modern physics laboratories. All along the way, Wallace makes the action (or in some cases, inaction) comprehensible and entertaining. Lots of reviews here, and most of them positive. All add my voice to chorus. A fine, engaging read.
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on June 18, 2011
Sometimes it seems that creating a good forgery is an art in itself. The Billionaire's Vinegar is a fascinating story about the market for vintage wine. It highlights the ways that even very intelligent and well respected peoples sometimes get their heads turned around because they want to believe that something is real. There are a variety of reasons for this, sometimes it's hard to disappoint a client who has spent a lot of money for something they believe is very valuable or someone who has been told that this item, which has been in the family for generations, is very old and rare, when it isn't. Sometimes it's the appraiser's own hunger to see something that they may have only read about or which is an incredible find especially if they are looking at it with an eye to being able to consign it for the client.

But these days there is one thing every appraiser has on their side, science. There isn't an answer for everything, certainly in The Billionaire's Vinegar there was only so much proof that science could deliver. Science though combined with a skeptic's mind as well as natural intuition and the acquired knowledge that one develops from seeing many different pieces becomes a much more integrated and effective system. Often the tools and tests necessary for science may cost too much (more than the value of the piece itself) but intuition and knowledge, while not as foolproof can be honed tools too. In my opinion, in this book it felt like everyone wanted to believe so much that the wine bottles in question really belonged to Thomas Jefferson that they were willing to indulge in suspension of disbelief. It's a fascinating look at just how easily desire can aid deception.

Like some of the other reviewers, I agree that the book was published too soon, the saga remains unfinished, perhaps a sequel? The story of Hardy Rosenstock deserves its own book.
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TOP 500 REVIEWERVINE VOICEon April 24, 2011
As a wine lover I found this a fast, and interesting, read ... Even if it did make me question the collecting of this beverage.

Filled with exactly the sort of pretentious characters, spouting just the sort of ostentatious nonsense you'd expect, as well as those who clearly have more money than sense, "The Billionaire's Vinegar" centers on a single bottle of so-called "Jefferson Lafite," which has been patently proved bogus ... Though just about no one involved will actually come out and admit it in print.

In describing that bottle, the author takes on the wine industry at large--especially the resale of rare fine, French wine, which confusingly seems to be in a never-ending supply despite logically scant quantities. The more valuable it is, the more they seem to find ... And no one dares question one bottle, because than they're questioning their own livings. It's an insidious and altogether silly situation that will leave most logical folks shaking their head and thanking their lucky stars they're not "privileged" enough to play in this sandbox.

The book was completed, clearly, prior to the court decision that basically sealed this case, but even without that "ending" the case is compelling and you'll never really look at wine, or those who revere it, the same way again.
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on July 13, 2015
While I drink wines, my taste is like Rumpole's, Chateau Thames Embankment, or Plonk from Box Cardbordeaux. The first wines we had at Thanksgiving were my Mom's selections of Boone's Farm and Cold Duck.

I knew there was a market for high-priced wines, like there is a market for all high-end goods. This book is a fascinating look at high-end fraud. If there are sheep, there will be shearers.

As far as an ending, after years of court appearances, the U.S Court of Appeals ruled in 2012 that claims were time barred, e.g., the statute of limitations had run out. Although there have been further court actions. The author needs to update ending.
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on January 2, 2013
This is an interesting mix of true crime, the intricacies and snobbery of the vintage wine market, those who can afford to participate in this high-end collectible game, and the diversity of personalities involved. Much fascinating detail and history of rare wines, the growers, the auction houses, reputations and the nefarious players who inevitably gravitate towards the forgery of any rare collectible. If you are into crime, forgery, collectibles, wine or a good detective story, there is something here to delight everyone with a truly fascinating tale of skulduggery and egos in a very rarefied atmosphere that few will ever have to worry about.
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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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