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.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Book Review: The Pickton File by Stevie Cameron

When we hear about horrific events, we usually express immediate shock and outrage. But without looking further and seeking out the full story, any real opinions we have on the subject tend to be superficial, and fade into a few stock responses we offer up whenever the subject is raised.

For years I felt and expressed the usual sadness and disbelief about the holocaust and other events associated with WWII. But it was only when I visited the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial Museum in Jerusalem many years ago that the true horror sunk in. The devil, and the understanding, are always in the details.

That was the thought that I had when I started reading The Pickton File by Stevie Cameron. The book is about Robert Pickton, the women he murdered on his farm in Port Coquitlam, British Columbia, and numerous related storylines.

I hoped that I would gain some insight into the mind-numbing events that took place. I wanted my loathing for Pickton to ratchet up several levels, and I wanted to feel more for the women who were killed than just the angry but ultimately hollow feelings a person has when hearing about terrible things that happen to strangers.

The Pickton File starts off well. However, ultimately the frustration that the author, Stevie Cameron, felt when she was writing the book will also be felt by the reader. No clear sense of which tale this book wants to tell ever fully emerges.

That lack of focus is partly due to the time frame in which the book was written. Cameron accumulated the information that went into the writing of this book starting after Robert Pickton was arrested in 2002. She followed the preliminary hearing that dragged on for six months, interviewed family members of many of the missing women, and then released the book shortly after Pickton's trial finally started in January 2007. Unfortunately, numerous publication bans prevented any information from the preliminary hearing from being included in the book. Of course, in such a huge case that affected so many people, there should have been plenty of other sources of information.

But nothing much was being said by anyone who could have provided valuable insight in the lead-up to the trial. The Vancouver police and local RCMP detachments were in defensive mode after being highlighted as some of the most shamelessly incompetent and insensitive police forces on the face of the earth. In the early pages of the book, the reader gets the sense that Cameron will explore this tale of incompetence in detail. What does appear on the topic is great, and is likely to stoke the anger of anyone who has followed this sad saga for any length of time.

For example, one of the most accomplished and educated members of the Vancouver police department was driven out of the force for, among other things, daring to suggest that there was likely a serial killer at work. However, while Cameron talks to the former police officer, Kim Rossmo, on numerous occasions, she does not, or is unable to, provide any other perspectives on this matter. The best and most thorough non-fiction books (and especially true crime) give credible perspectives from more than one side when warranted.

But the focus on police insensitivity to the missing women tails off. It is revisited incidentally throughout the book but is never fleshed out completely. As Cameron mentions, an entire book could be devoted to how the police refused to start looking into the issue until long after it was too late. As a lone writer working on a book, Cameron was simply overwhelmed at times by the amount of information, the numerous angles, and the spin that was being offered up by police:
All of this information was useful and interesting. It was good to know that so many qualified people were examining evidence on the farm. I was relieved that no expense was being spared, that nothing was too much trouble. But I began to feel as if I were being choked with numbers, statistics and little fact nuggets. I wouldn't say, exactly , that the information was spin, but it was so far from so many important issues that it began to worry me. All the public relations bustle, the steady torrent of numbers, couldn't stop people from asking how this had happened in the first place. Why had the police ignored, for years, the anguished efforts of family members and friends to have their loved ones listed as missing persons? Why didn't the police look for them? When Kim Rossmo told his colleagues in the Vancouver police in 1998 that he was convinced a serial killer was working in the Downtown Eastside, why was the official response a humiliating demotion—essentially a public dismissal? And if Pickton was taking women out of the Downtown Eastside to kill on his farm, why hadn't the RCMP, whose jurisdiction included the farm, picked up on the rumours that he might be involved? Especially when he was "known to the police," as the expression goes, a man who had once been caught by the RCMP running a chop shop (an illegal bit of entrepreneurial activity where he helped take apart stolen cars for their parts) on the farm for the Hells Angels.
One of the other very good sections of the book involves Cameron's investigating in Port Coquitlam, where Pickton's pig farm is located. A great atmospheric image of the town and its inhabitants emerges. This is where the writing is also at its best, with a real rhythm and purpose that makes you want to keep reading.

The Victims

Cameron interviews some of the family members of the dead and missing women, and this could have been one of the best and most riveting sections of the book. However, the interviews are generally brief and the picture of the women that comes through is often quite superficial. In the few cases where more details are given, you still get the sense that more could have been included.

Other women who lived the life and were friends of the dead women also have compelling stories to tell. For example, Cameron accompanies Maggy Gisle to the court during the preliminary trial. When she is first mentioned, she is making a good effort to change her life. Her story is one of constant struggle and setback, and like many of the women trapped in drugs and prostitution, you are never able to believe she will finally be all right. The shocking difference between Gisle when she was on the streets and when she got clean, as evidenced by two photos that appear in the book, is proof of what a nightmare life so many in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside live. When, a few chapters later, Cameron mentions almost as an aside that Gisle's life again spiraled out of control after their meeting, you wish that she would provide more details.

Most people aren't honest about the voyeuristic appeal provided by the broken lives of these women. Like stars in a real-life crime noir, there is not only tragedy in reading about these women but, if it hadn't been for the brutal deaths at the hands of the murderous freak Pickton, a kind of poetic beauty in the fact that so many of them chose a life of slow suicide.

As referenced by Cameron numerous times in the book, the website missingpeople.net contains the best collection of information on the missing women, and numerous interviews with the women's families. As much as you might think that the family members will white-wash the lives of the murdered women and provide a romanticized version of events, they often are forthcoming with honest anecdotes. Yet, the result is still hauntingly tragic in a way that makes our problems seem small and manageable. And like so many people who fall hard, they discovered too late that things can always get worse.

There is something almost naive and child-like in the images that are painted of these women by their surviving family members. That's probably because the families naturally reference the years before their lost daughters' descent into hell began—i.e., when they were little girls. But the fact that they did succumb to the pressures and dropped out is also an indication of their fragile, child-like state. Most drug users are of the functional variety and never fall as far as the women who end up on Vancouver's Downtown Eastside. A combination of early trauma in childhood (often sexual abuse), a family that was unable to support them (although that is not always the case), and a lack of self-esteem is the usual profile.

And gutless animals like Pickton prey on these weaknesses and know how to exploit them.

Beyond the Generalizations

Yet it is far more complex than the visceral responses of pity and guilt that most people have when they hear about the fate suffered by these women. If you had met any one of them before they were killed by Pickton, when they were at their worst on the streets, would you be able to summon the compassion to help them in any real way?

The honest answer for most would be no. Make no mistake, while many of the drug addicted prostitutes need our sympathy and help, when they are at their worst, some of them can be nasty pieces of work who do plenty of their own victimizing. In the most truthful accounts on missingpeople.net, families of the women who were killed admit that they did not have what it takes to rescue their daughters, sisters, and mothers. Sometimes, people simply are unreachable. But that doesn't alleviate the guilt. As Cameron mentions,
But the saddest family members were those who had seen their girls taken to foster homes by welfare officers because of neglect and addiction in the family. The regrets of these people had no limits and no answers, and most of the people I interviewed will never forgive themselves.
To go beyond the stereotypes and present this huge part of the Pickton story, there really needs to be an in-depth and thorough presentation. To avoid the normal divisions that this subject prompts, it has to go beyond the superficial. It has to let people know that all of these women have pasts, families (sometimes fractured, destructive, and the source of much of their pain, but families nonetheless), and, hopefully, futures.

For a grim and very difficult look at many people caught up in this life, the National Film Board's Through a Blue Lens is an excellent look at life on Vancouver's streets. No matter how far people have fallen, most still seem to have something worthwhile to offer, and, unbelievably, flashes of optimism and a sense of humour.

I mentioned in a previous post that the sick tale of Pickton offered no sense of humanity. But I was wrong. Brief glimpses of the people who devote their lives to helping the women trapped on skid row Vancouver provide a sense of hope. If we all had the compassion of these people, no doubt our society would be different in many ways. Perhaps there wouldn't be so many individuals who seem to experience a twisted schadenfreude at seeing others suffer, simply because they think "it's all about choices."

This takes us to about the half-way point of the book, and after that there isn't much more of interest related to the case.

Too Much Filler

Cameron writes in the first person and includes many of the obstacles she encountered when gathering information. The book is often more about her trying to come to grips with the enormity of the case, and find credible information, than it is about the case itself. This works quite well in the early part of the book. But the bland minutiae of her day-to-day interactions and travels becomes very tiresome after a while. Did she include these sections to contribute to a kind of general theme of confusion that is part of the Pickton case? Perhaps. However, it comes across as so much filler after a while.

The only really gripping part of the book appears in the closing chapter as we hear details from the opening arguments from both the lead Crown prosecutor and the lead defense lawyer.

This book is really only a primer. After so many years devoted to following this story, Cameron obviously wanted to get something out to capitalize on the publicity surrounding Pickton and his crimes. To be fair, Cameron doesn't claim this book is a comprehensive look at what happened. In the foreword, she states that she did her best with the restrictions in place and the constantly increasing scope of the case. Still, that bit of prolepsis doesn't insulate the book from criticism.

Cameron states that she is in the process of writing The Pig Farm, which will presumably be a longer, more structured, and better book. It will no doubt include the details that emerged during the preliminary hearing, the court case in which Pickton was found guilty, and will probably provide more details related to numerous killings. As far as it goes, The Pickton File is worth reading but doesn't provide much more than the experiences of Cameron as she researched the book.

There are numerous tales at work here, and I hope that Cameron does them justice in The Pig Farm, which is supposed to be released in early 2011. More than all the individual strands of the story—the women, the sicko Pickton, and the hell on earth he created on his farm, the monumental failure of the police—this is a story of how people can rationalize anything and look the other way as long as they aren't the ones who are being victimized. And I hope that Cameron seriously considers renaming her coming book to something more memorable and lyrical than The Pig Farm. While that may elicit all the horror of what happened, it doesn't do justice to the memories of the women who were killed.