On December 5th, 1985, a bottle of 1787 Lafite bordeaux, supposedly owned by Thomas Jefferson himself, sold at auction for the staggering price of $156,000. Christie’s Auction House had set a new record for the most expensive bottle of wine ever sold. The question was, however, was it authentic? Enter Michael Broadbent, head of Christie’s wine department, who auctioned the wine and specifically vouched for its authenticity (or provenance, as it is known in the wine world). Broadbent purchased the bottle from the collector Hardy Rodenstock, who had become a veritable legend among wine collectors for his ability to source extremely rare and unusual wines, often from the 18th century. This particular Lafite was notable because of its interesting physical appearance: it bore the initials “Th. J” towards the bottom of the bottle. It was already widely known that Jefferson was a wine enthusiast, having collected an impressive cellar, and learned much more about wine through rigorous note taking and traveling through France during his time living there before coming back to the fledgling United States. It seemed a large leap, however, to pin this particular bottle with Jefferson himself, as his diligent notes never mentioned such a bottle. Will Broadbent be able to hold on to his reputation if this bottle proves false?
Additionally, the Jefferson bottle is not the only mystery in this novel, it is just one of multiple bottles Rodenstock procures throughout the story that he claims were owned by Mr. Jefferson. Wallace fills his work with the tales of these various Jefferson bottles, as well as a general history of antique wine in general. Wallace tells the tale of “the Group”, an elite club of wine supercollectors who became almost fanatically obsessed with collecting old and fine wines in the 1980 and 90’s. These individuals would throw increasingly lavish wine tastings, that were either labeled “horizontal” (multiple wines from a specific year) or “vertical” (multiple years of a specific type of wine). These parties became outlandish, lasting for hours and covering over a hundred years of vintages in some “vertical” tasting parties. They were an expression of power and prestige in the wine world, and none were outdone by Rodenstock himself. However, as Rodenstock’s fame grew, questions about his uncanny ability to procure rare and oddly unique bottles grew as well. Although his authority as the leading taster and expert on old wine was unchallenged, his methods began to become suspect. Will we find out the truth behind Rodenstock?
I will admit that Mr. Wallace has done his homework. The list of sources that he cites in the novel is nearly 31 pages long! Incredibly well researched, it is apparent that Wallace’s The Billioniare’s Vinegar is definitely a history lesson before a mystery. At times I felt as if I was reading a thesis, but I definitely stayed interested in the story as I came into it knowing little to nothing about wine in general, much less fine antique wine. Mixing the history of wine tasting greats with the history of Jefferson himself, Wallace provides us with a well-rounded story that is intriguing. However, there were also parts of this book that almost put me to sleep. Some of the finer points about different vintages of wine and the complexities of the wine market were definitely a little too thorough for the average reader. I did, however, enjoy the chapter on scientific analysis of the bottles (obviously, because I am quite the science nerd).
If you’re new to wine or even if you happen to know a thing or two about it, The Billionare’s Vinegar is a good page-turner that really delves into the world of wine and the high stakes that came with the explosion of super rare wine into the market. It’s definitely worth a read (even if you want to skip over some of the nitty-gritty history parts).
3 out of 5 stars