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Thursday, July 03, 2008

Lager Library: The Billionaire's Vinegar by Benjamin Wallace

If you enjoy a good mystery, Benjamin Wallace's "The Billionaire's Vinegar" is a great story of intrigue that combines history, fanatical wine collectors, abundant wealth and one man who decided to parlay this combination into a scheme to amass riches by counterfeiting rare bottles of French vintages.

The story involves a claim that a Paris cellar was discovered with long lost bottles that once belonged to Thomas Jefferson. The third president of the United States and framer of the Declaration of Independence is recognized as America's first wine connoisseur and spent a number of years in France, so the story had the right elements to be major news when the find was announced. Surely a bottle of wine linked to Jefferson would be worth its weight in gold. Imagine the value of a discovery of more than two dozen bottles of drinkable Jefferson wine from some of the great French chateaus?

Wallace tells the story of Hardy Rodenstock, a German famous for throwing lavish wine events featuring rare vintages. His claim that he had purchase the contents of a Paris cellar containing bottles engraved Th. J. soon brought interest from Michael Broadbent, founding director of the Christie's wine department in London. In an amazing auction that pitted Kip Forbes (bidding on behalf of his father, Malcolm Forbes) and Marvin Shanken (publisher of the Wine Spectator) a 1787 bottle of Chateau Lafite Bordeaux sold for a record $156,000. Forbes would not be the only wealthy wine lover to lust after one of the bottles.

Like any great mystery, The Billionaire's Vinegar offers a few twists and a set of interesting characters. The setting shifts across various European locations, to the United States and Asia. There are conflicting opinions, scientific testing worthy of an episode of CSI Miami, and gumshoe detectives looking for clues.

Reading about the subculture of super rich wine collectors and outlandish tasting events is almost as hangover producing as some of the multi-day affairs when rare vintage wines were served in excess.

The book (Crown: $24.95) is a perfect summer read even if you are not into wine.

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