Yeah, I'm just getting around to reading and now writing about The Billionaire's Vinegar. You don't come to élevage for breaking news, at least I hope not. We're more reflective here. And so it will be for a "book review" of a book that's not exactly new nor will be reviewed in much depth.
It is a fun read. Check it out if you're a wine geek with some interest in history and nothing more pressing on your night stand. It's summer. This is a good page turner. Of course, you might instead peruse the newly released 3rd edition of The Great Domaines of Burgundy too. That's not exactly a page turner though.
The Billionaire's Vinegar tells the story of the alleged and now infamous 18th century Jefferson bottles of Ch. Lafite. How "super collector" Hardy Rodenstock, nee Meinhard Görke, allegedly conned wine experts and the world into believing these bottles were authentic and once owned by the author of the US Declaration of Independence. And how reputations of those experts, Michael Broadbent chief among them, were tarnished irreparably. Yes, it's a fun read though the author sure seems to be bent on vengence for a crime or misdeed commited against the insufferably rich. I get the logistics. I failed to care too much about their plight. It's pathetic all around but the author doesn't come out smelling so good to me, what with his reveling in pinning the guilty with their guilt. One wonders how much fiction is in this work of nonfiction.
Nevertheless, I finished it and can't help reflecting on the odd confluence of characters and events that I first came across nearly 20 years ago as I somewhat spontaneously got into wine.
We all have our wine epiphany stories, right? Actually, I have several and they all come out depending on what feels right in the moment.
I got into wine because my family enjoyed wine, not much fancy though apparently my paternal grandfather enjoyed Chateauneuf du Pape. I grew up and, voila, I became interested.
So I grew up with wine.
No, I got into wine because, during a seminal visit to San Francisco in the mid-70s for a family reunion when I was but a wee lad, I accompanied several family members to go wine tasting. It was a fairly long drive. I remember little of where we went, but I did talk to an older cousin on the ride about her dream of trees that grew bubble gum. Or perhaps I remembered more than I give credit. Years later, visiting Napa (where we most certainly went), I entered the "new" barrel room at Inglenook (now Coppola) and the sight of hundreds of barrels stacked several high, and the unmistakable smell of wine soaked oak and perhaps even redwood, it all hit me like a ton of bricks. I remember that smell from that day, and I bet this was at least one of the stops we made. It actually looked familiar, and that's odd in my experience of returning to places I knew I'd been. They never look the same, and here was a place I never guessed I went but now believe I did.
That's a pretty good "wine's in my bones" story, no?
Well, I studied abroad in college in England and visited France extensively and studied for half a year in Austria and visited wineries in the latter two places, traveling and drinking wine in Italy and Germany as well. I went to St. Emilion and Tuscany and the Wachau and the Rheingau, all without being a wine geek. My time in Austria taught me about dry Austrian wine, though I don't recall hearing the words gruner veltliner, which I most certainly did hear, at some point anyway.
So I'm one of those "I got into it as an exchange student in Europe" people. They always sound insufferable, so let's skip that one.
Then there are my several siblings, among them two of my brothers, one close in age and another more than a decade ahead of me. Both had some interest in wine and encouraged me, upon my return from Europe, to try Napa cabernet from Steltzner, in the Stags Leap area. After graduating from college, on June 17, 1991, to be exact, I had dropped a girlfriend off at SF airport for her flight home and drove to that brother's house in Sacramento. He said I had to try this 1986 Steltzner Cabernet. I did and it was delicious. Aromatic, not doubt oak laden but flavorful and quite good. That wine made an impression. Of course, I proceeded to leave the next day on a solo cross country road trip in a '66 Ford Mustang convertible and let's just say I forgot all about wine for that whole summer.
So was that my wine epiphany? Maybe, but no, not really.
Then fall came and I fled my summer destination of Chicago for California again and I was flailing. I was a new graduate with an English degree and a year bumming around Europe sandwiched in there while my classmates at home seemed to get serious overnight, land internships while I was away and undoubtedly had fabulous jobs. Me? I headed for the Liquor Barn. I was of age. I had time though little money. I guess I had prior wine experiences to draw me in. But really fate brought me there.
And what did I find? Who knows what the wine was. But at the check out stand, I found...I'm ashamed to admit...um...Wine Spectator. Yes, my wine epiphany may indeed have involved Wine Spectator magazine. Many people could say the same, and really, I feign embarrasment. I'll own it. Here's this magazine devoted to wine and I grabbed it on an impulse and my life changed. Why?
Everything in The Billionaire's Vinegar, that's why. There was an article on Michael Broadbent, the head wine man at Christie's, with a picture of him biking to work on the streets of London. How cool was that? There was an article of a hundred year vertical tasting of Ch. Lafite, including a few bottles of the second wine Carraudes de Lafite and positive notes from both those bottles and minor vintages of the main wine overlooked by those with lots of cash but not a lot of taste. Impressions were immediate and they have stayed with me. It wasn't the point of the lifestyle magazine, but read that you could ride your bike to wine auctions and champion so-called off vintages that delivered the goods if not the high price tags and drooling of collector types.
And there was an article about so-called "super collector" Tawfiq Khoury, who merits some mention in the book as one of a club of international collectors in Rodenstock's circle, if only because of a shared interest in wine and appearance at flashy wine tasting events. Khoury seemed so down to earth to me in the interview despite his high profile. He loved wine. He obviously had and apparently still has boatloads of money. I recall him commenting that Ch. d'Yquem is a better investment than any CD account. Yet, I liked him in what I read. He had a photographic memory for the wines he tasted. I sort of wished I had the same.
That issue or one soon enough had yet another reference to the Jefferson bottles. That girlfriend from the airport gifted me Broadbent's New Great Vintage Wine Book for my next birthday, a book that is repeatedly mentioned in The Billionaire's Vinegar for having countless notes from questionable Rodenstock tastings and even a postscript discussing and defending the so-called Jefferson bottles. Dubious connections aside, I knew about Broadbent from Wine Spectator and I loved the history told in his tasting notes. I still have the book and read though it, a relic in my own library.
So reading The Billionaire's Vinegar wasn't so much of a revelation a tawdry story and its flawed characters; rather, a revisit with old acquaintances of a world I've never inhabited nor cared to, but found intriguing and oddly inspirational at the beginning of my wine journey. For that this book is worth reading and remarking upon. Perhaps your interest would be less personal, and though the new Great Domaines of Burgundy is something of much greater substance, I can't deny The Billionaire's Vinegar was a good read, indeed. ***Enjoy now.