Monday, February 25, 2008

The Billionaire's Vinegar

I seem to be drawn to true-life tales of con artists, scoundrels, and scallywags (see my earlier review of Charlatan and my fondness for The Whiskey Robber and The Magician and the Cardsharp).

It's not that I admire them, per se; they have all cheated, defrauded, and stolen from both governments and individuals for no higher purpose than their own gain.

But I do have to admit that I can't help but admire their chutzpah--the sheer ballsiness of their schemes. You can't help but wonder what this combination of confidence, nerve, and ambition could accomplish in more legitimate pursuits.

The nervy bastard at the center of The Billionaire's Vinegar is Hardy Rodenstock, a self-made wine connoisseur/dealer from Germany who ascended to the top of the rare wine market in the 80s via some incredible "finds" of rare vintages. Chief among these finds was a cache of rare bottles dating from the late 1700s, each engraved "Th:J." implying that they once belonged to Thomas Jefferson.

Despite the fact that questions are raised about the bottles' authenticity (from historical sources outside the wine industry/culture) from the beginning, the Forbes family paid $156,000 for a single bottle of "Jefferson wine" to be displayed along with other Jeffersonian artifacts owned by the family. This purchase sent the market for rare wines into the stratosphere.

Rodenstock was everywhere after this, with a seemingly never-ending supply of the rarest wines, a prickly personality, and a shady background.

Wallace does an excellent job setting up the culture of folks who buy and drink rare wines and how that culture changed once the paradigm shifted from buying rare wines to drink to buying rare wines as an investment or a way to show off (predictably, this vulgarization occurs once the Americans really get involved). He also does an excellent job showing how snobbery, pride, and tradition made supposed experts willfully blind to the idea of fraud.

Definitive answers are hard to come by in books like this; it's difficult to test the wine without ruining it, and no one who's paid an insane amount for a bottle of wine wants to be proved a fool. Still, the circumstantial evidence of fraud is pretty clear, meaning many very, very wealthy people spent outrageous amounts of money for wine not nearly as old or rare as what they thought.

And maybe it makes me a bad person, but it's hard not to take some small measure of satisfaction in snobby rich folks looking like fools.

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