Elaborate account of a delicious hoax played on the world’s wine experts and fabulously wealthy.
According to magazine writer Wallace, a chummy partnership between two well-connected Europeans largely created the interest in historic vintages that reached its apogee in 1985 with the $156,000 purchase by the Forbes family of a 1787 Château Lafite engraved with the initials “Th.J.”—i.e., Thomas Jefferson. Michael Broadbent was the suave founding director of Christie’s wine department, which had come to dominate the global market in old and rare wines to the tune of millions of dollars. Broadbent’s palate was considered the most experienced in the world, and he scoured the cellars of his aristocratic acquaintances to unearth rare vintages. The purported Jefferson bottle was consigned to Christie’s by German collector Hardy Rodenstock, who spun a hazy story of workers tearing down a house in Paris, breaking through a false wall and happening upon a cache of extremely old wines. Jefferson, America’s first wine connoisseur, lived in Paris from 1784 to 1789 and began buying directly from the chateaux; with France disrupted by revolution, this particular order apparently didn’t make it back to Monticello. Rodenstock boasted that he had purchased two dozen engraved bottles of 1784 and 1787 vintages of Lafite, Margaux, Yquem and Branne-Mouton (all of which dribbled to market), but he would not divulge the seller, and the wine’s provenance came under suspicion. Wallace traces various attempts to determine the bottles’ authenticity, including analysis of ullage (fill level), cork, label, engraving, bottle and the taste of the ancient liquid, often doctored by adding later vintages. The author offers a revealing look at the influx into the esoteric field of wine connoisseurship of major-player egos and big money, which created a tricky and rarified market similar to that for expensive art—and encouraged fakes in both.
Rote journalism injected with considerable padding, but there’s no denying the appeal of this enthrallingly mad and recondite subject.