Book Review: The Billionaire’s Vinegar

A dear friend recently commented that my book list is suspiciously long for someone with two kids.  I think what she really meant to say was, how come her book list isn’t, though the stork has not yet descended upon my friends (unnamed) New England town.

Yes, I read.  And yes, as the one of you who read my first blog post knows, I have two kids.  But according to a commercial from my youth, “Reading is fundamental.”

So picture if you will a summer San Fernando Valley evening, kids asleep, The Daily Show/Colbert Report watched and erased from the Tivo, wife reading some self help book – or was it a diet book – or was it a self help/diet book?  Me, I tend to be a fiction/non-fiction kind of reader.  “Dear American Airlines” had just been finished, thoroughly enjoyed, and put away.  Next on the pile, “The Billionaire’s Vinegar” a book that follows two of my passions, wine and the Revolutionary War.

The book opens during an unprecedented auction in London, where several bottles of 1787 Bordeaux from the European cellar of Thomas Jefferson were about to be sold.  The wine itself would have been newsworthy but belonging to one of the Founding Fathers and the first metrosexual of the new republic was a rare find indeed.

The actual bidding on the wine has been written about before and is, on its own, a great anecdote.  Marvin Shanken, publisher of then fledgling, “The Wine Spectator” (no web link – they don’t need the hits) showed up prepared to walk away with his liquid loot until he ran into the son of Malcolm Forbes, freshly flown in by private jet to bid on the very same item.  Shanken’s reaction was about what one might feel as the the only guy in a bar about to ask out the only woman in the place – a supermodel –  when in walks George Clooney, tanned, relaxed and looking for someone to take back to his pad on Lake Como.  Game over.

But Shanken refused to be that guy who goes home empty handed.  Bidding got into six figures (for one bottle of wine) before he bowed out, making it perhaps the best loss in auction history (though he’d get his hands on another Jefferson bottle years later).  The rest of the book uncovers what has been perhaps a dirty little secret, certainly in the high end wine world; fake wine being passed off as rare and authentic.

I’m not sure if the book is ultimately an indictment on the need to covet, a sin many, many collectors of all things are guilty of, or rather a recipe for how easy it would be to perpetrate such a crime over and over again.  What was shocking to me was how many people believed that bottle after bottle of wine belonging to Thomas Jefferson could all be real.  But we believe what we want to believe, right?

And the bigger question remains (at least for me), is this happening right now?  That bottle of Screaming Eagle you bought for $2K after your Google stock split that sits in your cellar.  After reading this book, you might look at it a little sideways (no pun intended) now, wondering just what wine is actually in there.  Would you know? Would an expert know?  Do you really want to know?

Or is it really all about opening that bottle upon the birth of your child, your ten year anniversary, celebrating when the Flyers win the Stanley Cup (please God, please) and just enjoying what you believe to be in there?  Wine is all about the experience.

No one wants to be duped for sure, but the thought of owning something that was held by the guy who wrote the Declaration of Independence, well, if you could, don’t you think you would?

Published in: on August 8, 2008 at 1:31 am  Leave a Comment