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Bookmarks Issue: 
36-Sept-Oct-2008
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A-The Billionaires VinegarThe Billionaire’s Vinegar is the first book by Benjamin Wallace, former executive editor of Philadelphia Magazine.

The Topic: In 1985, when Kip Forbes, son of publishing mogul Malcolm Forbes, paid a record $156,000 at a Christie’s auction for a bottle of wine billed as a 1787 Château Lafite Bordeaux once belonging to Thomas Jefferson, oenophiles were set on their collective ear. The bottle bearing the initials "Th. J." was handled by Hardy Rodenstock, a shady German collector (and erstwhile pop band manager) who vociferously defended the wine’s vintage, even though Jefferson scholars were suspicious of the wine’s provenance. The stakes were raised when American billionaire Bill Koch decided to bring Rodenstock to justice. Wallace details the science—and the extensive litigation—behind the efforts to solve the mystery of the "billionaire’s vinegar."
Crown. 319 pages. $24.95. ISBN: 0307338770

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette 4.5 of 5 Stars
"The Billionaire’s Vinegar is the rare book that transcends its topic, reaching out to anyone interested in a good mystery, while at the same time going into enough detail to be of interest to a serious wine drinker." China Millman

USA Today 4 of 5 Stars
"[A] delicious mystery that winds through musty European cellars, Jefferson-era France and Monticello, engravers’ shops, a nuclear physics lab, rival auction houses and legendary multi-day tastings conducted by the shadowy German who had discovered the Jefferson collection. … If that recipe sounds ripe for Hollywood, it is: Will Smith’s production company has optioned the book." Jerry Shriver

Washington Post 4 of 5 Stars
"Somebody may have resisted the urge to yank open at least a few bottles of 1787 Chateau Lafitte (as it was then spelled) and enjoy them with a brace of partridges or an ascension of larks or whatever the French were eating at the time. Whether that somebody was Thomas Jefferson and whether a few bottles purported by a flamboyant collector to be from Jefferson’s stash are actually Chateau Lafitte at all are mysteries that form the centerpiece of The Billionaire’s Vinegar, Benjamin Wallace’s entertaining look at wine forgery." Bruce Schoenfeld

Seattle Times 3.5 of 5 Stars
"It’s not clear that readers with little or no interest in wine will find [The Billionaire’s Vinegar] engaging. But for anyone with at least a curiosity about precious old wines and the love of a good story, this well-crafted piece of journalism may prove as intriguing and enjoyable as a fine old Bordeaux." Jack Broom

Dallas Morning News 3 of 5 Stars
"All in all, Mr. Wallace nicely peels back the covers of a world most of us will never see. … The book’s ending is lacking and feels rushed." Angela Shah

Critical Summary

Benjamin Wallace’s magazine background helps him keep the many narrative threads in The Billionaire’s Vinegar tight and engaging. In addition, Wallace exhibits a sharp eye for detail and character: Hardy Rodenstock, in particular,comes across as deliciously deceptive. Exploring what Jefferson’s European tour of 1787 must have been like will likely interest even readers without a taste for wine, though connoisseurs will savor the author’s descriptions of the clubby (and sometimes comically extravagant) society of high-dollar wine collectors. Wallace raises questions about the wine’s authenticity that will linger on the palate, despite a perhaps unsatisfying ending. Or, as collector Ed Lazarus wrote of his experience with the discovered cache, "I had never experienced anything remotely similar in an older Bordeaux, or in fact anywhere else, except perhaps at a Baskin-Robbins."