Wine Books: Benjamin Wallace
Benjamin Wallace is a journalist with a broad experience writing for business and trade publications, as well as some popular magazines. His foray into the world of wine came with Billionaire's Vinegar.
I opened Benjamin Wallace's book with more than a degree of cynicism; after all, I knew even before I began reading the first page that he was telling a tale that, as yet, has no conclusion. I turned all 280 pages or so with the feeling that the ending to this book would inevitably disappoint, but as it turned out I was wrong. Yes, the matter is not yet fully settled, but Wallace tells a good tale, and when I reached the last page I didn't feel short-changed. In fact, with the information offered by Wallace, I didn't feel any further conclusion was necessary; any future developments in this story will be the icing on an already very tasty cake.
For those not familiar with Wallace's subject, and who are now thoroughly confused by the above paragraph, I will provide some background detail. In 1985 Michael Broadbent sold, in his role as auctioneer Christie's in London, a bottle of 1787 Château Lafite. It came from the cellar of Hardy Rodenstock, a German pop impresario who developed a knack for turning up fabulous old bottles of wine, and who came to be renowned for his marathon tastings featuring ancient vintages of Yquem and other esoteric old wines. Not only was this bottle two centuries old, it was also engraved with the initials Th.J., linking it directly with Thomas Jefferson, onetime Ambassador to France and ultimately American President, who thanks to his meticulous record-keeping was known to have had a taste for such wines. Considered authentic by Broadbent, who was considered an authority on rare and old vintages, many of which he had experienced courtesy of Rodenstock and his tastings, it looked like the ultimate 'find' in wine. It was a gem that sold for £105000 ($156000).
Two decades on and, as Wallace explains, this gem was perhaps not such a lucky find. I will try not to retell Wallace's story, but through the pages of the book he brings the reader to a perhaps inevitable conclusion, planting his many seeds of doubt concerning the bottles. For example, their source was said to be a bricked up cellar in Paris, but the location was never revealed by Rodenstock, and no-one has ever come forward to indicate where they were found. The exact number of bottles found has also never been revealed, and Rodenstock goes on to uncover more ancient libations, in Venezuela no less. He is reported by David Molyneux-Berry to have purchased several severely ullaged or empty bottles, only to sell remarkably similar bottles, "filled to the brim", at a later date. It turned out that the bottles, initially verified by Christie's, had been engraved using modern tools, and all in all there is much to doubt the authenticity of the wines sold by Rodenstock which, by the way, isn't his real name.
Don't worry, I haven't given everything away; this book is an enticing read which has a lot more to say about Rodenstock, Broadbent and others, and not everybody is still smelling of roses by the end of the book. We also hear about the 'good guys', the experienced tasters contracted to catalogue the cellars of the wealthy, pulling out dozens of fake bottles as they do so, and Bill Koch, one such wealthy owner who is taking the vendors and merchants to task through the courts. There are, as always, a few niggles with the text but they are truly minor ones, such as when Wallace describes Broadbent's drive down the A1 motorway, which is perhaps like describing Route 66 as a 'freeway', but other than that small gaff there is really nothing to spoil the enjoyment of this book. Most importantly perhaps, in no way should this story be limited to the wine-obsessive; the writing is accessible and the story sufficiently captivating for all to enjoy.