Last week I struggled through The Billionaire's Vinegar: The Mystery of the World’s Most Expensive Bottle of Wine by Benjamin Wallace. It's not that this book was uninteresting, it's just that I had a hard time sympathizing with people who spend $156,000 on a bottle of wine and then get upset that the wine might not be quite as old as they were told it probably was. You know what I would spend $156K on? A house. Or a retirement account for myself, my sister, my parents, and perhaps a few other hardworking middle-class individuals. Perhaps I'd just send it all to Haiti so a few less people had to eat dirt biscuits. I would not spend it on a really old bottle of liquid that might not even be drinkable.
Anyway, tirade aside, this book is interesting and I definitely recommend it if you're a wine connoisseur, or want to know more about wine. I learned a thing or two. For example, did you know that there are wine bottles bigger than the "magnum" size? A Jeroboam is a double magnum and a Methuselah (love that name) is a whopping 6 liters!
This book is about a slew of bottles that a wine trader named Hardy Rodenstock discovered and that were rumored to have once belonged to Thomas Jefferson. One of the bottles sold at a Christie's auction in 1985 for $156,000. And no one was even 100% sure this bottle was once owned by Jefferson. Oh, the 1980's, you were all about conspicuous consumption. Anyway, after a few years (and a few more bottles rumored to have once been owned by T.J.) people began to wonder if these bottles really were as old as Rodenstock said they were, and if they had indeed been owned by Jefferson, or if they were fakes. Really old wine is hard to detect as fake for a few reasons. First of all, if you open it up and drink it, it's hard to know what it is supposed to taste like. Even if you do find someone who has tasted another wine that old (and we're talking like, circa 1780), it's hard to compare because changes in the wine due to environmental factors can make one very old wine taste drastically different from another. My impression was that most collectors do not open their wine, which means that you can't just take a vial of it to a lab to have it tested because that would compromise the wax seal and cork and expose it to the air. So, you can point fingers all you want but it's hard to find solid evidence that you've bought a less-old bottle of wine. The book follows Hardy Rodenstock, the Jefferson bottles of wine and their purchasers, and one man's quest to prove that Rodenstock was a forger and that the Jefferson bottles were fake.
I had a hard time mustering much sympathy for these billionaires who may have been duped into buying a bottle of wine that was not as old as advertised. I mean really. But, if you're into wine at all, or want to be more into wine, the author is well-informed and lays out a lot of information in an interesting way.
Updated to add: it was one of the Koch brothers who sued Hardy Rodenstock. Cry me a river, you environment-hating creeps. In case you don't want to click through, here's some quotes: "Now a well-financed coalition of right-wing ideologues, out-of-state oil and gas companies and climate-change skeptics is seeking to effectively kill that law (a landmark California clean-energy bill) with an initiative on the November state ballot...The Koch brothers have contributed about $1 million, partly because they worry about damage to the bottom line at Koch Industries, and also because they believe that climate change is a left-wing hoax."