The Billionaire’s Vinegar by Benjamin Wallace, published by Three Rivers Press, © 2009. Originally published by Crown Publishers, © 1994.
On 5 December 1985 Kip Forbes, son of Malcolm Forbes, acting as his father’s agent, sat in Christie’s London auction room waiting to bid on a 1787 bottle of Chateau Lafite, supposedly owned by Thomas Jefferson, the third president of the U.S. Forbes had intended to bid no more than £5000 for the bottle but when the bidding ended and the dust settled, he had set the price record for a single bottle of wine; tendering £105,000 or about $156,000 at the then current exchange rates.
Almost from the beginning the wine’s authenticity was questioned. The place it was discovered and how many bottles were found at the site has never been fully or satisfactorily revealed. Students of Jefferson could not find any conclusive proof that the former president ever possessed this wine; important because Jefferson catalogued and inventoried everything. Dating techniques were unable to assign a definitive date except give it a range of somewhere between 50 to 200 years old. The engraving on the bottle was certified old, and new by different experts. The wine, when opened, actually a different bottle from the same Jeffersonian lot, was delicious; a very rare occurrence for a 200-year-old bottle of red wine.
The Billionaire’s Vinegar is the story of this suspect bottle of wine, and the exclusive club of people who are connected with it. Benjamin Wallace tells this tale of mystery and intrigue through the use of short vignettes and biographies of those involved, much as if he were writing a series of magazine articles; not surprising since that is what he does for a living: write magazine articles. He presents the evidence that exists in excruciating detail, but it is not enough to truly settle the debate, although he convincingly posits that the whole affair was a con.
When Willie Sutton was asked why he robbed banks he replied, supposedly, “because that’s where the money is”. The rare and old wine market is an expensive hobby, open only to those whose pockets are deep and full. Always an attraction for those dissatisfied with their shallow and empty pockets.