October 2008 Indie Next List
“Benjamin Wallace has uncorked an absolutely fascinating account of the world's most expensive bottle of wine, an intoxicating read with the complexity and nuances of a great vintage. As your book 'sommelier' I recommend that you drink deep of this heady narrative concerning world-class connoisseurs, deep-pocketed collectors, and -- quite possibly -- a diabolically clever con man.”
— Joe Drabyak, Chester County Book & Music Company, West Chester, PA
It was the most expensive bottle of wine ever sold.
In 1985, at a heated auction by Christie’s of London, a 1787 bottle of Château Lafite Bordeaux—one of a cache of bottles unearthed in a bricked-up Paris cellar and supposedly owned by Thomas Jefferson—went for $156,000 to a member of the Forbes family. The discoverer of the bottle was pop-band manager turned wine collector Hardy Rodenstock, who had a knack for finding extremely old and exquisite wines. But rumors about the bottle soon arose. Why wouldn’t Rodenstock reveal the exact location where it had been found? Was it part of a smuggled Nazi hoard? Or did his reticence conceal an even darker secret?
It would take more than two decades for those questions to be answered and involve a gallery of intriguing players—among them Michael Broadbent, the bicycle-riding British auctioneer who speaks of wines as if they are women and staked his reputation on the record-setting sale; Serena Sutcliffe, Broadbent’s elegant archrival, whose palate is covered by a hefty insurance policy; and Bill Koch, the extravagant Florida tycoon bent on exposing the truth about Rodenstock.
Pursuing the story from Monticello to London to Zurich to Munich and beyond, Benjamin Wallace also offers a mesmerizing history of wine, complete with vivid accounts of subterranean European laboratories where old vintages are dated and of Jefferson’s colorful, wine-soaked days in France, where he literally drank up the culture.
Suspenseful, witty, and thrillingly strange, The Billionaire’s Vinegar is the vintage tale of what could be the most elaborate con since the Hitler diaries. It is also the debut of an exceptionally powerful new voice in narrative non-fiction.
About the Author
BENJAMIN WALLACE has written for GQ, Food & Wine, and Philadelphia, where he was the executive editor. He lives in Brooklyn.
“Part detective story, part wine history, this is one juicy tale….as delicious as a true vintage Lafite.”
“Splendid...A delicious mystery that winds through musty European cellars, Jefferson-era France and Monticello, engravers' shops, a nuclear physics lab, rival auction houses and legendary multi-day tastings conducted by the shadowy German who had discovered the Jefferson collection...Ripe for Hollywood.”
“This is a gripping story, expertly handled by Benjamin Wallace who writes with wit and verve, drawing the reader into a subculture strewn with eccentrics and monomaniacs...Full of detail that will delight wine lovers. It will also appeal to anyone who merely savours a great tale, well told.”
"A page-turner…What makes Wallace's book worth reading is the way he fleshes out the tale with entertaining digressions into Jefferson's wine adventures, how to fake wines (who knew a shotgun blast could make a bottle look old?) and dead-on portraits of several major wine personalities who intersected unhappily with the wines.”
"Wallace’s depiction of rabid oenophiles staging almost decadent events to swill rare wine, knowingly depleting the reserves, are as much fun as the mystery."
—The New York Daily News
“A riveting wine history, wine mystery, and more.”
—Dana Cowin, editor in chief of Food & Wine
"For anyone with at least a curiosity about precious old wines and the love of a good story, this well-crafted piece of journalism may prove as intriguing and enjoyable as a fine old Bordeaux.”
"The season's wine reading cannot get off to a better start than with The Billionaire’s Vinegar, one of the rare books on wine that transcends the genre ...Though the story is the collector’s world, the subject is also greed and how it can contort reality to fit one’s desires. It’s been optioned for Hollywood. I hope the movie’s as good as the book.”
—Eric Asimov, The Pour, New York Times
“It is the fine details--the bouquet, the body, the notes, the finish--that make this book such a lasting pleasure, to be savored and remembered long after the last page is turned. Ben Wallace has told a splendid story just wonderfully, his touch light and deft, his instinct pitch-perfect. Of all the marvelous legends of the wine trade, this curiously unforgettable saga most amply deserves the appellation: a classic.”
—Simon Winchester, author of The Professor and the Madman and A Crack in the Edge of the World
“The Billionaire’s Vinegar is the ultimate page-turner. Written with literary intelligence, it has a cast of characters like something out Fawlty Towers meets The Departed. It takes you into a subculture so deep and delicious, you can almost taste the wine that turns so many seemingly rational people into madmen. It is superb nonfiction.”
—Buzz Bissinger, author of Friday Night Lights