The Billionaire’s Vinegar by Benjamin Wallace bills itself as “the mystery of the world’s most expensive bottle of wine” on its cover, a tagline which the book both fails to live up to and surpasses.
The world’s most expensive bottle of wine was purchased by one Christopher “Kip” Forbes on behalf of his father, Malcolm Forbes, at a Christie’s auction in 1985 for $156,000. Why so much? The bottle in question – a 1787 Chateau Lafite said to come from a recently unearthed cache of wines belonging to Thomas Jefferson. The story of this particular bottle is interesting enough. We have an good cast of characters (Michael Broadbent, the respected British Christie’s wine auctioneer, Hardy Rodenstock, the German wine trader selling the bottle, Thomas Jefferson, America’s First Wine Snob, the family Forbes, billionaires). We have mysteries. Is the bottle authentically old? Did it belong to Thomas Jefferson? Most importantly, how does the wine taste? Ultimately we get some (though not all) of the answers, but the story of this particular bottle is a relatively small part of the book and ultimately, for me at least, not the most compelling.
What was compelling for me? Turns out the world of rare, old wines is completely bananapants crazy. The world’s most expensive bottle of wine serves as a starting off point (both for Wallace and within the wine world) for some staggeringly bonkers stuff. We learn about a subculture of extremely wealthy wine collectors (amusingly likened by Wallace to certain types of Star Trek fans) spending millions acquiring the biggest, rarest cellars of wines that they couldn’t possibly drink in a lifetime. We go to week long tasting events and a mind-bogglingly decadent recreation of a dinner from the 1867 Universal Exposition in Paris attended by a Czar and an Emperor. We learn about the world of wine forgery and the ways that science been enlisted to fight back. And then we learn a LOT more about Hardy Rodenstock (see above re: bananapants crazy).
As a wine drinker, it’s the questions the book raises about how wine is valued that stick with me. I’ll never taste a Lafite, much less a centuries old one bought by a President, but I’ve always wondered how much more pleasure one could possibly get out of a bottle of wine costing $500, $1,000, $156,000, and how one could possibly decide how much that additional pleasure is “worth.” For me, how these collectors, vendors, and wine journalists came to the conclusion that 200 year old wines have the same value as a house in certain parts of America reads like a story of collective insanity. But then again, the most expensive bottle of wine I’ve ever bought (or likely will ever buy) cost $100, and I’m afraid to drink it for fear it won’t be worth the money.
Wallace ends his epilogue with reference to a 2008 Stanford/Caltech study in which “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 pricer stuff.” I believe it. Now I just need to fire out how to hack my brain next time I go wine tasting to flip that equation.