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The Billionaire's Vinegar: The Mystery of…
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The Billionaire's Vinegar: The Mystery of the World's Most Expensive… (original 2009; edition 2008)

by Benjamin Wallace

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6503014,827 (3.49)34
Member:bostonian71
Title:The Billionaire's Vinegar: The Mystery of the World's Most Expensive Bottle of Wine
Authors:Benjamin Wallace
Info:Crown (2008), Hardcover, 336 pages
Collections:Read but unowned, Donated
Rating:****
Tags:nonfiction, wine

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The Billionaire's Vinegar: The Mystery of the World's Most Expensive Bottle of Wine by Benjamin Wallace (2009)

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» See also 34 mentions

Showing 1-5 of 30 (next | show all)
I seem to be drawn to true-life tales of con artists, scoundrels, and scallywags (see my review of the just-released Charlatan and the high rating I have on The Whiskey Robber).

It's not that I admire them, per se; they have all cheated, defrauded, and stolen from both governments and individuals for no higher purpose than their own gain.

But I do have to admit that I can't help but admire their chutzpah--the sheer ballsiness of their schemes. You can't help but wonder what this combination of confidence, nerve, and ambition could accomplish in more legitimate pursuits.

The nervy bastard at the center of The Billionaire's Vinegar is Hardy Rodenstock, a self-made wine connoisseur/dealer from Germany who ascended to the top of the rare wine market in the 80s via some incredible "finds" of rare vintages. Chief among these finds was a cache of rare bottles dating from the late 1700s, each engraved "Th:J." implying that they once belonged to Thomas Jefferson.

Despite the fact that questions are raised about the bottles' authenticity (from historical sources outside the wine industry/culture) from the beginning, the Forbes family paid $156,000 for a single bottle of "Jefferson wine" to be displayed along with other Jeffersonian artifacts owned by the family. This purchase sent the market for rare wines into the stratosphere.

Rodenstock was everywhere after this, with a seemingly never-ending supply of the rarest wines, a prickly personality, and a shady background.

Wallace does an excellent job setting up the culture of folks who buy and drink rare wines and how that culture changed once the paradigm shifted from buying rare wines to drink to buying rare wines as an investment or a way to show off (predictably, this vulgarization occurs once the Americans really get involved). He also does an excellent job showing how snobbery, pride, and tradition made supposed experts willfully blind to the idea of fraud.

Definitive answers are hard to come by in books like this; it's difficult to test the wine without ruining it, and no one who's paid an insane amount for a bottle of wine wants to be proved a fool. Still, the circumstantial evidence of fraud is pretty clear, meaning many very, very wealthy people spent outrageous amounts of money for wine not nearly as old or rare as what they thought.

And maybe it makes me a bad person, but it's hard not to take some small measure of satisfaction in snobby rich folks looking like fools. ( )
  Mrs_McGreevy | Nov 17, 2016 |
An entertaining read about the world of wine collecting. At its heart is a ridiculously expensive bottle of wine purported to have been owned by Thomas Jefferson. ( )
  gayla.bassham | Nov 7, 2016 |
I had only medium expectations for this book, and for the most part that was right on target. Moderately interesting, especially for someone like me who has a passing knowledge of French wine and some of the more famous chateaus. Gets a little dry at times.

Unfortunately, I'm considering ranking this two stars -- if I could rank the ending separately, I would -- because it was such a letdown at the end. I had read reviews that the ending seemed rushed, but this was much worse than I had imagined. He practically drops the story with no ending at all -- there's an intermediate court judgment, a quotation from someone saying they believe they'll eventually prevail, and then... the end?

Couldn't he have waited to publish this until he found out what actually happened?? Or, at the very least, given us a little update on where each of the major characters stood as of the date of publication?

Ugh, I was literally in disbelief when I got to the end of the book. Definitely an unfinished feeling. ( )
  BraveNewBks | Mar 10, 2016 |
Great page-turner about the forgery of rare wines, this book has already been optioned by the movie industry.
~Stephanie ( )
  BooksOn23rd | Nov 25, 2015 |
Liked the book but the ending was very unsatisfying. Shows how nonfiction is just an interesting as fiction. ( )
  ericasz | Jan 6, 2015 |
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To my parents,

and in memory of Claire Wickham Woodroffe
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A hush had come over the West Room. Photographers' flashes strobed the standing-room-only crowd sliently, and the lone sound was the crisp voice of the auctioneer.
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0307338789, Paperback)

“Part detective story, part wine history, this is one juicy tale, even for those with no interest in the fruit of the vine. . . . As delicious as a true vintage Lafite.” —BusinessWeek

The Billionaire’s Vinegar tells the true story of a 1787 Château Lafite Bordeaux—supposedly owned by Thomas Jefferson—that sold for $156,000 at auction and of the eccentrics whose lives intersected with it. Was it truly entombed in a Paris cellar for two hundred years? Or did it come from a secret Nazi bunker? Or from the moldy basement of a devilishly brilliant con artist? As Benjamin Wallace unravels the mystery, we meet a gallery of intriguing players—from the bicycle-riding British auctioneer who speaks of wines as if they are women to the obsessive wine collector who discovered the bottle. Suspenseful and thrillingly strange, this is the vintage tale of what could be the most elaborate con since the Hitler diaries. Updated for paperback with a new epilogue.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:04:45 -0400)

(see all 2 descriptions)

It was the most expensive bottle of wine ever sold. In 1985, a 1787 bottle of Cha^teau Lafite Bordeaux--one of a cache unearthed in a bricked-up Paris cellar and supposedly owned by Thomas Jefferson--sold at auction for $156,000. The discoverer of the bottle was pop-band manager turned wine collector Hardy Rodenstock, who had a knack for finding extremely old and exquisite wines. But rumors soon arose. Why wouldn't Rodenstock reveal the exact location where it had been found? Was it part of a smuggled Nazi hoard? Or did his reticence conceal an even darker secret? Author Wallace also offers a history of wine, complete with vivid accounts of subterranean European laboratories where old vintages are dated and of Jefferson's colorful, wine-soaked days in France. This tale of what could be the most elaborate con since the Hitler diaries is also the debut of a new voice in narrative non-fiction.--From publisher description.… (more)

(summary from another edition)

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