The single best strength of The Billionaire’s Vinegar is Benjamin Wallace’s ability to paint the portraits of the various characters involved in the mystery.
We are first introduced to Michael Broadbent (at left), the founding director and auctioneer for Christie’s wine department. He was known for pedaling to work each day on his “Dutch ladies’ bicycle with basket.”
A lean six feet tall, Broadbent had a fringy sweep of whitening hair, and his smile, distinctly hail-fellow-well-met, was tempered by the cocked eyebrow of a worldly man. He looked more aristocratic than many of the dukes and princes alongside whom he sat on Christie’s board of directors. (p. 2)
He was happy to opine, at these tastings, on the wines under consideration. He had a knack for putting wine into memorable words. Sometimes he borrowed from literature, describing one wine as “black as Egypt’s night.” More often, he minted his own rakish descriptions, seeing a woman in every wine. A ’79 Petrus reminded him of Sophia Loren: “You can admire them, but you don’t want to go to bed with them.” A double magnum of ’47 Cantenac-Brown evoked chocolate and “schoolgirls’ uniforms.” (p. 3)
I think Wallace made a savvy decision in leading with such a charismatic central character. Broadbent is intriguing and it’s not clear early on (or later in the book, for that matter) how clean his hands are in this mystery.
It is Broadbent’s wine knowledge that is pivotal to the sale that will become controversial.
[H]e had spent the last two decades crisscrossing the planet, cataloging the dank and dusty contents of rich men’s cellars, tasting tens of thousands of fine wines, and jotting his impressions in slender red hardcover notebooks. Those unassuming scribblings amounted to the most comprehensive diary of wine ever recorded. That diary now consisted of sixty of the Ideal notebooks, and he had collected them in a published tome that was the standard reference on old wines. (p. 2)
Next up is Thomas Jefferson – did you see that one coming? Jefferson was quite an oenophile. His detailed records indicate all the French wine he purchased, including those during his tenure in France in 1787-88.
Jefferson toured the wine region of France to learn about the growing and cultivation of grapes. He wanted the baby United States to produce its own wine and his copious notes would serve future generations of vintners.
I love some of the details included about Jefferson:
– As a widower, he was infatuated with a married woman and supposedly had hurt his right wrist in a mysterious accident – historians think he was trying to jump over a fence to impress her.
– He carried a portable copying press and made duplicates of every letter he sent. Apparently a special ink was necessary.
– And when he left Paris to return to the United States, his majordomo
dismantled the household and one box of assorted wines never made it across the Atlantic.
That missing box was supposedly found by Hardy Rodenstock and that’s where the mystery begins.
Rodenstock (at left) is a German pop act manager and businessman with shady origins. He became a huge player in the rare and antique wine world in the ’80s, most decidedly because of the Jefferson bottles. He claimed that a hidden cellar had been breached in Paris when an eighteenth century home was being torn down. Two dozen of the found bottles were engraved with the initials “Th.J.” It would be Broadbent who would put up the Rodenstock find on the auctioneer’s block.
Hardy Rodenstock presented a stolid moon of a face, barely interrupted by small, opaque eyes and the faintest suggestion of a mouth. He was physically unprepossessing. What you remembered about him were not the stippled-in details but the big-brush outlines. He wore his brown hair in a boyish shag that downplayed his forty-four years. He dressed flashily, favoring shiny double-breasted suits with big lapels, starched colored shirts with contrasting white collars and cuffs, sharply creased slacks, and modishly tinted plastic eyeglasses. Despite ‘dressing like a banker,’ as an auctioneer recalled, he never seemed to have any money. He had a worldly mien, a quiet self-assurance that could come across as humility or aloofness. As he shook your hand, he would click his heels together. (p. 42)
Rodenstock hosted annual tastings, often times verticals – when different vintages (years) of the same wine type from the same winary are tasted. He would periodically reveal a bottle from the Jefferson trove. Rodenstock was an insatiable consumer of wine-related media, and Jefferson’s connections to wine were not a secret. (p. 52)
I suppose the fourth important character was the first Jefferson bottle to go up for auction.
The glass had a green-amber tint. The bottle’s shape was feminine. At the waist, it bellied gently. Shoulders eased languorously into neck. A rough wax cap offered a first line of defense against air penetrating the cork. Besides the archaic features, the bottle had an obvious patina of age. Calcified cellar dirt was caked halfway around it. Elsewhere, the glass was spackled with a spidery, dun-colored dust. On a section of the bottle’s trunk where the glass still showed, the engraved numerals 1787 were visible. Below, in a looping script, was etched the antique spelling ‘Lafitte.’ Still closer to the bottle’s base was the cryptic abbreviation “Th.J.” (p. 57)
It’s an amazing thing that Wallace can make a bottle seem to have personality. A bit like Broadbent’s feminine descriptions of wine.
But the question remains, is that sexy bottle actual of Jeffersonian descent?