Friday, May 11, 2012

Winey Reading Notes: "The Billionaire's Vinegar"

In addition to being a Winey Mom, I am also a proud, card (um I guess that should be book) carrying bookworm. I love to read. In fact, if you ask me what a perfect evening would entail, I'd have to include the following elements: good book, glass of wine, fire (fireplace or patio fire pit, depending on the season).

I'm also kind of geeky in that I love history. Many of our vacations include stops at historic sites (and battlefields, which I believe had a direct correlation on the Winey Son attending West Point!).  American history is one of my favorites (other than the history of the English monarchy which in effect, is like reading one really, really long soap opera) and I am especially fascinated by our Founding Fathers. Washington, Adams, Franklin, Jefferson....can't get enough of their bios!

So when I get my hands on a non fiction book about the world's most expensive bottle of wine that also includes: 1) A history of Thomas Jefferson and his love of wine, especially during his days as the Colonies' ambassador to France  2) a history of wine growing in the United States 3) a history of wine growing in France 4) a history of the rise of the wine culture in the US.... well. Go ahead and just imagine how quickly I grabbed it off the shelf. Done? Good. Let's move on.

The above book is titled  The Billionaire's Vinegar  and it's written by Benjamin Wallace. (2008, Crown Publishers). The story centers on the winey antics of the fine wine world, before and after a member of the Forbes family buys a bottle of 1787 Château Lafite Bordeaux at an auction for $156,000. This wasn't just any ancient bottle of fine wine - it was supposedly owned by Thomas Jefferson, our nation's second president and one of the greatest wine connoisseurs of his time. The book goes on to describe the issues of the bottle's authenticity and the very colorful cast of real life characters that come into play in the bottle's journey to stardom.

The first few chapters of the book will give you a winey European history lesson that ranges from the strict French tier system of wines and wineries to the start of the wine craze right here in the United States.  Little wine tidbits of knowledge just kept popping up. (Benjamin Disraeli's doctor regularly prescribed Lafite as a cure for his asthma and gout! Thomas Jefferson was George Washington's unofficial wine consultant.) You learn all about Jefferson's great love of wine, wine growing and wine collecting. You also get a great idea of how Jefferson and company spent his ambassadorial days in Paris as they tried to put our little United States of America together, as well as a vivid picture of the French wine growing districts of the 18th century.

Next you meet the modern cast of characters as they interact over the Jefferson wine bottle. Hardy Rodenstock, the pop music manager turned wine expert who claims to have found the bottle (one of dozen) in a walled off Paris basement. Michael Broadbent, the bow tie wearing, bicycle riding wine auctioneer at Christie's. Serena Sutcliffe, the Sotheby's wine guru whose palate is actually insured (think Betty Grable's legs back in the 40's!). The rich Floridian who buys one of the bottles, the comical wine merchant who actually breaks one of the bottles and the former FBI agent hired to find out the truth behind the bottles. I swear, you couldn't make this stuff up.

At times, the book got a bit down and dirty when it described the scientific methods used to verify the bottles' age and the wine's authenticity. But even then, Wallace paints such a true picture of sparse labs and underground testing that can at least feel the atmosphere of the scientific venues, even if you can't wrap your brain around all that science.

As you might imagine, many different lawsuits were filed over the question of the Jefferson bottles. Some have been settled, some are pending, others are tied up in legal muck. No matter what their current status, the story of the wine that started them all is very, very entertaining.

Sorry, just couldn't resist!
It was funny that I read this book now, four years after it was published, because just a few days ago, it was announced that Brad Pitt has been signed to star in the movie version of the book. (Will Smith owns the rights to it.) Now, I am not the world's biggest Brad Pitt fan (he does have moments of brilliance, though - did you see "Burn After Reading"?), but I am a big Will Smith fan. I can only hope that Will's talent leads the production, and it turns out to be as well made as the book is well written!


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1 comment:

  1. Hi Winey Mom,

    Great post on The Billionaire's Vinegar! Please e-mail me at It’s about wine of course :)



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