ARCHIVE: Uncorking a Good One on River Road

thumb.phpBy TOM CHESEK (First published on Red Bank oRBit June 2, 2009)

A record-setting auction price for a bottle of wine. A tangled history that took in everyone from (supposedly) Thomas Jefferson to (quite possibly) the Nazis. A central character by the name of Hardy Rodenstock; a German music-business figure with a reputation for extraordinary luck in discovering rare vintages. A buyer who soon became tormented by suspicions as to the wine’s origin and authenticity. And an intrepid reporter who saw in this twisted saga the makings of a first-rate nonfiction page-turner.

A broad base of readers have agreed that Benjamin Wallace and his first book, The Billionaire’s Vinegar: The Mystery of the World’s Most Expensive Bottle of Wine, are a match made in hardcover heaven. And Hollywood — in the form of one of the biggest box office stars of the young century, has fast-tracked this project for apparent DaVinci status. This from a story that remains very much an ongoing and unresolved issue.

This Thursday evening, June 4, Wallace takes the train down the shore from his home in Brooklyn to make an appearance at River Road Books in Fair Haven, that “comfortably coccooned cranny of culture” that remains defiantly indie in an atmosphere that we’ve described as “stripmall strong-armers and virtual-shopping vultures.”

It’s one of the manageably-scaled reading/signing events that the shop’s quartet of owners (Sharon EverettLaurie PotterKim Robinson and Karen Rumage) have made a point of presenting in recent months, and for fans of what Wallace calls narrative nonfiction, it’s a great opportunity to gain an up-close audience with an author whose star seems very much on the rise.

It’s also a free event, with no obligation to buy a signing copy of the Billionaire’spaperback (although they’ll be available for purchase should you fancy one) and an open invitation to join in the discussion. You needn’t be an oenophile to appreciate the storytelling prowess and journalistic immediacy of Wallace, the veteran magazine/newspaper writer (GQFood & WineDetails, Washington Post) and editor (Philadelphia) — you just need to love a cracking good read; one with a shady “fixer” character, a super-rich patsy, a secretive world of exclusivity (the rare-wines trade) and a panel of undisputed experts who may have gotten duped in what could be the greatest grift in the history of wine collecting.

Red Bank oRBit spoke to the author in advance of his two upcoming visits to the area; Continue Reading to find out just what Thomas Jefferson and the Nazis have in common.

RED BANK ORBIT: Just a quick look at your bio reveals that you’ve written extensively on the media, and on mergers and acquisitions — I would say that there are probably good thriller stories to be told with either of those topics, so what was it about this story that said this is the one; this is my first book?

BENJAMIN WALLACE: I had always been interested in narrative nonfiction — books like The Perfect Storm and Seabiscuit — and I kept looking for a book like that, only about wine. It was a book that I wanted to read, but couldn’t find out there — and when I came across a mention of this mystery in the memoir of a British writer, it became the book I wanted to write.

From what I understand, other sources had only really touched the tip of the iceberg with this story, and your book represents the best journalism on the subject, in addition to being set up as a ‘ripping-good adventure yarn’…

It was a fun project to research. There were elements of the story — the record-setting auction, the fact that these bottles supposedly belonged to Thomas Jefferson. This guy who had been a manager of pop groups in Germany and turned into the the biggest wine collector in Europe, and the investigation that unfolded when the authenticity of the claim was called into question.

I have to say I know pretty much nothing about wine, and so I was actually surprised at how low the auction price was for this record-setting transaction. I guess I had anticipated something closer to the sort of bids they were getting at art auctions a few years ago.

The stakes are lower than they are with art works, but when something happens, when there’s a suspicion of counterfeiting or deception, there is a pleasure taken when the experts get fooled; in a way that doesn’t apply to the art world.

How exactly does one go about counterfeiting a rare wine?

It’s not so much counterfeiting as the fact that wine can be tampered with — for instance, you can switch labels with different vintages of the same wine; an expert would be able to identify it as that same wine, but it’s possible they could get fooled as to the real vintage.

Does something like that put a serious dent in the reputation of these experts? Is it such a subjective thing they do, that just to make one mistake, to lose any small amount of credibility with their readers pretty much collapses the house of cards?

In my opinion, even the world’s greatest expert should never say they’re infallible.Robert Parker, who’s as respected an expert as there is, tasted the wines in the book, and when he was asked about it, he said that they were great wines, whether real or fake. Which I thought was a great answer.

Now, I don’t think I’m a good taster at all. I wasn’t born with that ability that the real experts have; I can’t analyze ingredients the way that others can. But there is an objectivity to what the experts do; an ability to pick up and describe the nuances of flavor in a wine, that is of great help to anyone who’s interested in wine.

I understand that the new edition of the book that you’ll be promoting in your appearances down here has a new epilogue that you wrote for the occasion. What’s happened in the case since the original hardcover was published?

Well, the first edition ended with the lawsuit still pending, and I was of the opinion that Rodenstock would not contest it. Then when the paperback was getting ready to come out, it looked as if he would, although it seems now that he’s stopped contesting it. But there have been other lawsuits filed by the plaintiff since the book was first written; against auctioneers and other parties.

Are you of the opinion that the auction-house people are somehow complicit in the scam? Or is there just an entrenched way of doing things, over so many generations, that isn’t so much a pattern of deception as simply a process that just isn’t set up to protect against deception?

I can’t speak to their being complicit, but I could say there was a kind of systemic negligence for many years, although auction houses seem to be taking more care nowadays.

So what else are you up to in between these signing appearance whistlestops? Do you have a new book project? Or is there a TV movie in THE BILLIONAIRE’S VINEGAR?

I’m writing freelance these days; doing a lot with GQ, where I’m a contributor. I would like to start a new book, but I haven’t yet hit upon that story. I suppose I’ve set a high bar for myself! But I can tell you that the movie rights have been purchased, by a group of producers, one of whom is Will Smith.