Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Book Review: The Billionaire's Vinegar by Benjamin Wallace

The Billionaire's VinegarThe Billionaire's Vinegar by Benjamin Wallace is a story of malleability, desperation to be part of the crowd, pretentiousness, and greed. In short, the anatomy of a swindle.

For anyone who has long loathed "serious" wine drinkers, and especially wine writers whose turgid tasting notes are full of laugh-out-loud descriptions, there is a great deal of schadenfreude to be had in this book.

And while it easy to mock those who are wine connoisseurs, the very best of them no doubt have the palate and experience to sample a dozen wines and accurately pick out the producer and vintage of each one.

But that doesn't insulate them against being taken by a fraudster who sold old bottles of wine for tens of thousands of dollars (often much more) and made millions from numerous deceptions.

Wine Fraud

Wine fraud has been going on almost as long as the drink has been made. In many ways, wine provides the perfect opportunity for scam artists. Short of filling bottles with coloured water (which is not unheard of), detecting fraud, and most importantly, proving it, can be very difficult. Wineries do not issue certificates of authenticity, and many collectors are not skilled enough to determine whether the liquid in the bottle they have purchased is of the chateaux and/or vintage they have been led to believe.

Also, wine is often not drunk until many years after purchase, if ever. Add in the fact that those who have been duped are often reluctant to come forward if they ever realize what has happened. Fear of showing ignorance is rampant amongst casual wine drinkers, and what better way to prove your lack of knowledge than to let everyone know that you were suckered into buying supermarket plonk in a fancy bottle.

The Scam

The con artist in The Billionaire's Vinegar first appealed to collectors by offering up a group of bottles that he claimed were owned by Thomas Jefferson. Wallace provides some great back story on Jefferson's travels to France in the 18th century and the former U.S. president's love of wine. Within the community of wine connoisseurs, the story of Jefferson and his love of wine is well known. And so these bottles had instant cachet.

Like many con artists, the German at the heart of this scam was a smooth talker skilled at ingratiating himself with all the right people. With Christie's auction house vouching for the legitimacy of the bottles, a tense bidding war kicked off, and the U.S. billionaire Malcolm Forbes became the proud owner of a $156, 000 dollar bottle of wine.

By focusing on these (supposedly) extremely old bottles of wine, there were even greater opportunities to equivocate and avoid scrutiny. In this passage, the author discusses a private investigator hired by one of the wealthy individuals who finally wised up to the scam:
Elroy was drifting straight toward the same morass of subjectivity that had bedeviled all previous challenges to the bottles—the arguments about the bottle variation, the blind street of Rodenstock's reticence, the how-would-you-know-what-it's-supposed-to taste-like posture, Monticello's skepticism versus the impossibility of proving a negative, the inadequacy of existing radio-dating methods, the sensory validations by such luminaries as Broadbent and Jancis Robinson, not to mention the disincentive for Koch to sacrifice a bottle that had cost tens of thousands of dollars for a test that might not be definitive. The odds were against his coming to any more certain a conclusion than had the few people before him who had questioned their bottles.
Numerous celebrities in the wine world were reluctant to raise questions about the authenticity of the wine as well, and gushing praise from some of the most prominent wine writers gave added credibility to the creep who kept flogging his fake bottles.

The Jefferson bottles represented only a fraction of the questionable bottles that emanated from the German collector. As he continued to sell bottles, he started to suffer that same kind of sloppy recklessness that seems to bring down so many con artists. Vintages that had never surfaced in recent memory (1737!?), puzzling bottle types, and tastes that just didn't jibe were some of the things that started to give the game away. And a staunch refusal to provide details on where many of the bottles came from was also a warning bell to all but the most gullible.

The tale continues up to the present day—a court decision a few years ago allowed the case to sort of reach a conclusion. But amazingly, many of the people who gagged up thousands of dollars for dodgy bottles of wine seem not to be troubled or are entirely dismissive of the claims. As mentioned earlier, this may be due to embarrassment. But just as likely, there was a great deal of rationalization involved. When all the facts are laid out in a well-researched and well written book, it all looks so obvious. But when you are neck deep in your own enthusiasm and delusions, you are just begging to be told what you want to hear.

However, if some of these clowns really have few problems with being held up as gullible buffoons, and instead gain satisfaction at the supposed status their purchases confer, perhaps there should be a special category of auctions in which fake bottles are knowingly sold.

Writing Style

Like many good non-fiction books, there is plenty of great information here. After reading this book, you will know a lot more about the world of wine. For example, while you no doubt know what a magnum of wine is, have you ever heard of a j√©roboam (contains the equivalent of 4–6 bottles of wine) or a nebuchadnezzar (it contains the equivalent of 20 bottles of wine)? You also learn about types of wines, regions, the sub-culture of wine collecting, and some of the sniping and bickering that takes place within its ranks.

The Billionaire's Vinegar is very well written. Tight prose that slowly builds up the story and all the characters involved makes for an entertaining read. No doubt Wallace came to his own conclusions while researching the book, but he doesn't engage in the kind of brazen editorializing of which lesser writers are sometimes guilty. Instead, he paints a picture of the characters involved and the situations that played out. No doubt readers are led to certain conclusions, but it is done in such a sublime and nuanced way that you're certain that the events as depicted are exactly as they occurred.

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