The subtitle of “The Billionaire’s Vinegar” is “The mystery of the world’s most expensive bottle of wine”. The title suggests a simple tale: a rich man buys a bottle of wine. So what? Benjamin Wallace has crafted much more than the non-fiction tale of a high profile business transaction. The book reads like a murder mystery, and each player- be they historical figure, auctioneer, or consumer- is fleshed out with their history and motives.
Story of the Book
The story of the book centers around the 1985 sale by Christie’s auction house of the most expensive bottle of wine ever sold: a 1787 Chateaux Lafite which may have belonged to former president Thomas Jefferson. From there Wallace weaves an elegant tale, exploring the history of Thomas Jefferson, Christie’s, the wine trade in the U.S. and in Europe. I went into this book knowing little about wine, and came out feeling like I could hold my own in a conversation. Terminology is carefully defined and explained; names are never dropped, but explored. The readability of this book was a surprise and a delight; the evocative sentences used by the author (“Subterranean deposits of fine Bordeaux began to accrete, like some patchy geological formation, into a far-flung stratum of old wine”) are reminiscent of the colorful terminology used by wine tasters (“…like crystallized violets and clean bandages!”).
One of the things that fascinated me the most about this tale is how our culture set it up to occur. Americans will often romanticize things associated with the European upper classes; this is hinted at as one of the forces at work as America became the major consumer of expensive French wines in the 1980’s. But I would like to add that people in general like to romanticize things that are old or rare as being of good quality. Now add to that the fact that wine can get better with age, and you have a foodstuff that has transcended the simple nature of consumption for taste and become the stuff of legends. It is like the Antiques Roadshow- everyone loves it when some random old painting from a garage sale turns out to be a secret treasure. Wine takes an element of that- it can be precious because it is rare- and combines it with the fact that it has probably improved. Delicate and perishable, we want to believe that secret cellars will be found underground filled with fantastic wines of incredible value and that maybe, someday, we will get to taste it. I can think of no other food that someone would be willing to eat after two hundred years of sitting in a basement.
The involvement of Christie’s auction house suggests where this is going. The wine has become a palatable art. With the artist long dead, who can prove it is a forgery? Competition between the connoisseurs of aged wine builds, each striving to outdo one another. Then these miraculous bottles appear- a vintage from before the infamous blight when Phylloxera, a kind of aphid, destroyed most of the French vineyards. Just to be that old in amazing, but what is more the bottle has a small inscription that might refer to Thomas Jefferson. The Jefferson estate becomes involved. The link to history may debatable, but the age of the wine seems to be what really draws attention. The mystery of the book centers around the supply and demand of these wines, and whether some of them weren’t too good to be true. The tragedy that is hinted at but never really explored is that if these wines are truly like art, they are more like a song than a painting: ephemeral in nature, once consumed they are gone.
I would compare the demand of the epicureans here as being comparable to that of art collectors as opposed to other people involved in food. It is possible to buy up all the current supply of white truffles, or for American demand for acai berry to force the price up outside of the locals ability to buy it. There are not really other foods, though, that cannot be reproduced, that will never again be made the same. The American oenophile in the 1980’s was sort of like the jerk who ate the last Dodo bird.
This tale also raises questions of connoisseurship. If a wine is truly excellent, does it matter how old it is, or who it belonged to? Or is it better to preserve a bottle full of history knowing that it will eventually become undrinkable? The reader comes to the end of the book knowing something was wrong, but it is not easy to point a finger at a specific action and denounce it as a crime.