by Benjamin Wallace
336 pages, Crown Publishers
Review by Bill Kirton
If you don’t like or know much about wine, you will by the time you’ve read this book. You’ll also have enjoyed a mystery and lots of aperçus of the wealthy at play. It’s a fascinating story beginning with the sale of a 1787 Lafite which reputedly belonged to Thomas Jefferson, then opening out into a wealth of anecdotes, personalities, vintages, deceptions, tastings and feuds, and ending as a page-turning investigation, by an ex-FBI agent on behalf of an America’s Cup winner, into possible fraudulent practices involving millions of dollars and some precious reputations.
The opening chapter is an exemplary hook. It describes the auctioning of the Jefferson bottle and ends skilfully on a teasing deus ex machina. It’s followed by an introduction to the elements Wallace will be handling – people, names, premier crus, ‘good’ years, collectors, producers, tasters – then segues back into the main thread of the story which picks up the auction again and the main bidders involved. From then on, the various people and themes are folded together expertly to create a rich, layered narrative. It’s a completely absorbing read.
Surprisingly for a non-fiction book, I can’t tell you much about the story itself because it has several ‘plot’ turns and to let any of them slip might spoil the pleasure of reading. Suspense is part of the Wallace technique, his cast of characters is excellent and each is drawn with the skill of a novelist. And, as you’d expect from a top of the range journalist, his research is so thorough it’s scary. Sometimes, his use of detail tends to draw attention to itself and I wonder whether it adds to the narrative. There’s one restaurant, for example, which doesn’t figure largely and yet we’re told that it ‘occupied an old house with a sign showing a horse being watered’. Also, the person who’d built its wine list had ‘a Dundreary moustache and a cigarette always smoldering in a long holder’. I’m not sure what function those details perform. In fiction they add credibility but here the whole narrative is so persuasively ‘real’ anyway that they seem unnecessary.
But this is absurd quibbling on my part because Wallace writes so brilliantly and with no ostentation. He describes one of the central characters, Hardy Rodenstock, as having ‘a stolid moon of a face, barely interrupted by small, opaque eyes and the faintest suggestion of a mouth’ – the ‘barely interrupted’ and ‘faintest suggestion’ are perfect. He’s dealing with people who have money to burn so there are wry little throwaway anecdotes, such as that of the man who, ‘forbidden by his wife to smoke cigars in their Manhattan apartment, bought the adjacent flat, turning it into a smoking lounge’. He notes the popularity of tastings and tasting notes in the latter half of the 20th century and asks ‘Was Pétrus really the best Pomerol? Which of the two Rothschild rivals – Lafite and Mouton – would prevail in a multi-vintage showdown? Was Latour truly the longest-lived of the first growths? Did the ’29 Pétrus taste different in different-size bottles?’ ending it all with the deliciously sharp ‘The apotheosis of this hyper-delineated linguistic movement came in 1990.’
There’s a respect for the whole wine business but he doesn’t always resist the invitation to some gentle satire. When doubts about the authenticity of bottles reputedly from 1893 and 1900 arise, he records one taster as saying ‘I had never experienced anything remotely similar in an older Bordeaux, or in fact anywhere else, except perhaps at a Baskin-Robbins ice cream shop’. And when the reputation of some bottles is defended by a wine-lover who is a laminate-flooring tycoon, he adds in parentheses ‘(With the very largest collections, a loosely inverse correlation often obtains between the size of the collection and the glamour of the collector’s profession.)’
It adds up to a story about wine and fraud but also about money, privilege, fashions, class and all the emotions and subterfuges that thread through them. The Billionaire's Vinegar is an excellent, highly entertaining and informative read and, since reviewers of it can’t resist the tempting parallels with its subject, I should add that it’s full of complexity and has a long, subtle finish. (Or perhaps I shouldn’t.)