I've recently read The Billionaire's Vinegar: The Mystery of the World's Most Expensive Bottle of Wine by Benjamin Wallace, Crown Publishers, 2008. Soon after, I found a Cliff's Notes version of the same events by Partick Radden Keefe in the September 3, 2007 issue of The New Yorker. It's a good story whether told in several hundred pages or just twelve.
The gist is this: A guy who calls himself Hardy Rodenstock claims to have found a cache of old wines hidden in a bricked-up basement in Paris. These wines are from some of the most famous vineyards in France, Lafite, Yquem, Mouton and Margaux and are purportedly etched with the initials Th.J. So clearly, the third President of the United States left them there on one of his several sojourns in France.
Kip Forbes thinks so. He's Malcolm's son and a good argument for leaving your money to your pets. He bought a Jefferson bottle from Rodenstock (via Christie's) in 1985 for 105,000 Pounds; $156,000 in the fat dollar 1980s. The Forbes family then put the wine on display in a case under a hot lamp (see the Lab's report on what happens when you "cook" wines this way). The cork fell into the bottle and nobody ever drank the wine. Several of Rodenstock's "Jefferson Bottles" have been sold at auction for enormous sums.
I'll leave it to you to find out how exactly the whole mystery turns out. But I think it's safe to assume that if you're dumb enough to spend $100,000 plus on a bottle of 200 year-old wine, you shouldn't be too surprised to find out later that it's either vinegar or fake.
Forbes isn't alone. Really old bottles of wine seem to play a big role in the separating of fools from their money. Since 1998, more than 19 magnums of 1947 Lafluer (fancy Bordeaux) have sold at auction. Unfortunately, only 5 magnums were bottled by the vineyard in 1947.
And apparently the fakes can be good. The renowned wine-scorer, Robert Parker, gave one of Rodenstock's magnums of 1921 Petrus (even fancier Bordeaux) a perfect, 100 point score. According to Petrus, they didn't bottle any magnums in 1921.
Reading about rich guys buying and (usually not) drinking wines gets tiring. Quickly. But the issue of Thomas Jefferson's wine connoisseurship does raise, at least for me, an interesting question. It's a simple one.
What was Th J drinking? By most accounts, he's America's first wine-wanker. Jefferson was the guy who sat at the end of the table in Early America, swirling his glass, forcing you to try to smell the cherry stems and vanilla in your glass. He probably banged on about malolactic fermentation while you stabbed your leg with a fork too.
Drinking an actual bottle from Jefferson's cellar (even if it were the real thing) amounts to historical fetishism, a secular Last Supper-ish communion with an icon of liberty. But it would not be drinking what Jefferson waxed on about from his table at Monticello. Because whatever he was drinking, it definitely wasn't 200 years-old. Like the rest of us, Jefferson drank his claret not long after buying it.
There must be a better form of communion with the past possible, some way to transport ourselves into Jefferson's cellar. The Lab is typically focused on more practical research (not that time-travel isn't practical). But this sort of thought-experiment seems a worthwhile diversion.
Stay tuned (first in a series)...
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