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The Grifter and His Ultrarich Marks
on May 28, 2008
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.