"At the tasting, (wine collector Bipin) Desai remarked that the older wines smelled like an old Hindu temple. `Because there are a lot of droppings from bats in those temples,' Desai recalled." - from THE BILLIONAIRE'S VINEGAR
"In a Stanford/Caltech study by neuroeconomists, published in January 2008, subjects were given several glasses of the exact same wine, each with a different price tag. Believing that they were drinking different wines, the subjects described the `more expensive' ones more favorably. Moreover, brain scans showed the subjects to actually experience more pleasure from the nominally pricier stuff." - from THE BILLIONAIRE'S VINEGAR
On December 5, 1985, Michael Broadbent, the founding director of the wine department of Christie's auction house, auctioned off Lot 337, a bottle of Chateau Lafite red vino, vintage 1787, inscribed with the initials "Th.J." which had ostensibly been discovered, along with 25-30 others so marked - the exact count always remained vague - behind a false wall in the basement of a house being demolished in Paris. The bottle had been consigned to Christie's by the German wine collector/seller, Hardy Rodenstock, who had acquired the entire cache and claimed that the initials on the bottles were those of Thomas Jefferson, a wine connoisseur in his own right, a President of the United States, and a resident of the City of Light during his time as minister to France.
Lot 337 - a SINGLE bottle, mind you - sold to the American Kip Forbes for $156,000 (or the rough equivalent of 48,800 bottles of 2-quid plonk from the local Tesco).
The auction of Lot 337 serves as an introduction to THE BILLIONAIRE'S VINEGAR by Benjamin Wallace, a book that explores the larger topic of old, rare wines - the purchase, collection, and tasting of which absorbs the time and millions of dollars of those with perhaps too much of both on their hands. Oh, and, of course, that which naturally follows - the forgery of such wines.
The collectible wine market evolved when the growers began bottling and labeling their product (as opposed to distributing it in barrels from which the rich man's butler would tap-off into bottles), when vintages became officially stratified according to their perceived quality, when the consumers began cellaring selected vintages in their original bottling, and, decades later, when such stockpiles previously "lost" were discovered. The fraud perpetuated by a counterfeit bottle can reach ludicrous proportions.
"Tim Littler, from Whitwams, bought a Jéroboam of 1869 Mouton at Christie's London. When he got home to Manchester, he left the bottle upright on a table. Later, when he turned to look at it, he could see right through. Alarmed, he held the bottle up to the light. The fluid inside seemed far too translucent for a red Bordeaux, and, strangely, no sediment was swirling around ... Littler opened the bottle and, sure enough, it contained colored water."
The mental image of what must have been the look on Littler's face made me giggle. (Well, maybe it was the effect of the fermented grape swill downed with my bangers 'n' mash.)
As a reading experience, THE BILLIONAIRE'S VINEGAR, while perhaps not allowing you a whiff and taste of Domaine de la Romanee Conti Montrachet 2005, will give you a glimpse into the exclusive - we daren't say "snooty" - world of rare wine collectors. And, more to the point considering the introduction, the book is a reasonably fascinating narrative of the means by which the genuineness of the Parisian "Jefferson" bottles was determined, although, on this latter topic, it may drag on a bit. And the book does provide enough information by the conclusion for the reader to arrive at a satisfactory mental verdict regarding the authenticity of the bottles in question.
As an aside not recorded in the volume, it should be noted that in 2009 Michael Broadbent initiated a suit against Random House, the publisher of THE BILLIONAIRE'S VINEGAR, claiming defamation of character. The issue was settled out of court, Broadbent apparently receiving an apology and monetary damages, though the text of the work wasn't subsequently altered. My personal conclusion from this legal detour is that author, who wasn't named in the action, fairly administered blows to old sore points.
Ah, I see the Indian take-away has arrived. Let me go to my wine cellar, the cabinet under the kitchen sink, where my gallon of screw-topped Italian red has been gently aging. Honey, break out the paper plates, plastic wine goblets and napkins!