Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Artsy Wednesday (also Book Review): The Billionaire's Vinegar by Benjamin Wallace

For my birthday (yes, last December) my brother gave me a book I'd been dying to read: The Billionaire's Vinegar: The Mystery of the World's Most Expensive Bottle of Wine. The book, by super-smart Benjamin Wallace, begins with the 1985 Christie's auction that set a record for the highest price ever paid for a single bottle of wine. The auction winner was Kip Forbes and the bottle was touted as a newly discovered part of Thomas Jefferson's cellar (well, actually, a bottle that never quite made it to the cellar, but that belonged to TJ nonetheless).

The rest of the book zigzags between years, explaining the evolution of the wine market, the nearly-untouchable world of high-end, rare wine tastings, and the investigations and doubt surrounding the Jefferson bottles and the man who "discovered" them, German music producer-turned-collector, Hardy Rodenstock.

It's pretty amazing.

While it's clearly a history book, and the Tarantino-like chronology is a little confusing at times, TBV is a good read. Wallace is a compelling writer and, obviously, a pretty fantastic interviewer. He got cooperation from pretty much every major player in the rare and old wine world, and got them to say some stuff that's revealing. What's interesting, too, and that I didn't realize until I was nearing the end of the book, is that the whole Jefferson bottle affair wasn't 100% settled when he decided to write the book. His research ran in parallel to several other investigations and appears that the book itself contributes to the overall case. Cool.

So the book would be worth reading even if it was fiction. But it's not, and I'm also fascinated by what I learned about the wine industry - especially in the US. My parents have always drank wine with dinner. My grandparents drank cocktails, but my parents always drank wine, so I've always thought of wine as a normal part of a meal.

What I didn't realize was that my house was ahead of the curve. If Wallace's story is to be believed - and I think it is - wine wasn't mainstream in America until fairly recently. Really great wine glasses weren't even available in the US until the late 1980's - which is crazy when you consider that Reidel glasses are now available at Target. The article jibes with Robert Parker's look at the last 30 years in US wine history that ran in Food & Wine last September. So I guess I shouldn't be surprised, but it still shocks me to read about wine and realize that I've been an active part of the awakening of the wine industry in the US (the later part of the awakening, of course, but part of it nonetheless).

But I digress. The Billionaire's Vinegar: if you're into wine, or drama, or history or forgery (according to Amazon, 13% of people who viewed the TBV page ended up buying The Man Who Made Vermeers, another book I really liked, even though it had nothing to do with food) it.

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