China, Thomas Jefferson, and fake wine? Benjamin Wallace, author of Billionaire’s Vinegar

grape wall of china billionaire's vinegar by benjamin wallace re thomas jefferson wine

By Jim Boyce

USD156,000 is a lot for a bottle of wine. But such is the amount a 1787 Chateau Lafitte – then spelled with two t’s – fetched at auction in 1985. The source: a collector named Hardy Rodenstock who said he found the bottle in a Paris basement and that it – engraved with the initials “Th. J.” – was ordered by Thomas Jefferson. Given that Hong Kong is a hot spot for rare and fine wines, it seems appropriate China’s bookshops will soon stock Billionaire’s Vinegar by Benjamin Wallace, which looks at this and other bottles supplied by Rodenstock, and at concerns raised over their authenticity.  I asked Wallace about his book and about fake wines in general.

Your book casts doubt not only on the “Thomas Jefferson” bottles, but also on many others, from 19th-century Bordeaux to large-format Petrus from the first half of the 20th century. Given the importance of Hong Kong for auctions and private sales of rare and fine wines, how much risk do buyers there face in getting suspect bottles?

As always, the operative phrase is caveat emptor. I think it’s safe to say that the older and rarer the bottle, the more risky it is. I would be extremely suspicious of anything from the 18th century. I would be extremely suspicious of any Petrus in large formats from before World War II. And I would be extremely suspicious of such extraordinary cult rarities as the 1947 Cheval Blanc or the 1900 Margaux or the 1865 Lafite or the 1811 Yquem.

What three pieces of evidence most convince you that the 1787 bottles are fake? What is the status of lawsuits involving buyers and sellers of these wines?

The question I like to ask is: What evidence is there that they are authentic? But, since you’re the one asking the questions:

  • The combination of chateaux and vintages supposedly found in the original cache — Mouton, Lafite, Margaux, and Yquem, from the 1784 and 1787 vintages — simply do not tally with Jefferson’s meticulous and thorough records.
  • In the early 1990s, a government laboratory in Germany radiocarbon-tested the wine in one of the Jefferson bottles and found that it dated from 1963; in late 1992, a Munich court found that Rodenstock had “adulterated the wine or knowingly offered adulterated wine“.
  • Tool-mark experts hired by the collector Bill Koch, who owns four of the Jefferson bottles, determined that the engravings on his bottles, as well as two others they had an opportunity to examine, were made using a modern power tool such as a dental drill.

The main lawsuit, which Koch filed against Hardy Rodenstock, is pending in New York. Koch has also filed suits against various auction houses (Acker Merrall & Condit, Zachys, Chicago Wine Company) and collectors (Rudy Kurniawan, Eric Greenberg). Most of those suits concern the sale of alleged fakes other than the Jefferson bottles, and they are all pending also.

As a consumer who has had an opportunity to attend many high-end wine tastings in China, I have observed that there is a strong desire among some wine people to be among the few invited. I wonder if that same desire influenced how critical some wine experts felt they could be about wines provided by Hardy Rodenstock?

No doubt some experts were more influenced than others, but I think it’s safe to say that for direct beneficiaries of Rodenstock’s largesse, it wouldn’t have been very gracious (or likely result in future invitations) to accuse him of fraud. So, the generous critical treatment of some of his odder-tasting bottles was probably an instance of not wanting to bite the hand that pours your wine. And I also think it was a case of wanting to believe. For the guests, these events — and the wines served at them — were once-in-a-lifetime experiences. It was hard not to get caught up in the excitement.

I found it interesting how little is known about Rodenstock, from his personal history to the source of the 1787 and other wines discussed in your book. Given the rarity of the wines he provided, and that some of the ensuing tasting notes have made it into books of some of the world’s most famous writers, how do you account for this?

The wine world has tended not to subject itself to much scrutiny, and the early-to-mid-eighties, in particular, was a relatively innocent time. Counterfeit wine just wasn’t on people’s radar as an issue. None of the publications best positioned to investigate the matter — Decanter, Wine Spectator, and the German magazine Alles uber Wein — had a tradition of investigative journalism: Decanter’s most esteemed columnist, Michael Broadbent, sold three of the Jefferson bottles and has described himself as one of Rodenstock’s “close friends”; Wine Spectator writers attended Rodenstock events, and the WS’s historically spotty coverage of the Jefferson bottles scandal almost invariably fails to disclose that none other than Marvin Shanken, the magazine’s owner, editor, and publisher, himself owns one of the Jefferson bottles; and Heinz-Gert Woschek, the longtime editor of Alles uber Wein, told me explicitly: “Hardy Rodenstock is a friend of mine. It was very delicate for me to write objectively.”

I know one collector in Hong Kong who has four bottles of the “Thomas Jefferson” wines as well as a plaque saying the source of them is Harry Rodenstock. How many of these bottles do you estimate are now in China?

I have no idea how many Jefferson bottles have made it over there, but Rodenstock was already selling to the Asian market, and inviting prominent Asian collectors to his tastings, by the early 1990s. He is well connected, in particular, in Hong Kong, where his godson is a wine merchant.

What advice do you have for people in the China market who are buying rare wines?

The same advice I would give anyone in any market: Enter at your own risk. For a long time, it was customary to advise people that they’d be safe if they relied on a trusted merchant, but one of the revelations of the Jefferson bottles affair has been how even the biggest, most venerable auction houses and merchants are fallible. I’ve spoken to very experienced collectors who simply won’t buy at auction anymore, and who limit their purchases now to either buying on release, or buying wines too obscure, or reasonably priced, to attract the interest of counterfeiters. With old and rare wine, buyers should demand to know the histories of the bottles. But for older vintages, in particular, there’s really no such thing as a sure thing; some of the leading chateaux, including Yquem, actually traded bottles with Rodenstock in the 1980s, so even if an old bottle comes from the cellar of the chateau itself (which most people would consider to be the gold standard of provenance), it doesn’t guarantee authenticity. In the end, people who go for ultra-premium, ultra-rare wine are playing a risky game, one best played by people who know they could be buying fakes, and are willing to take their chances.

See here for an excerpt of Billionaire’s Vinegar.

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