84. The Billionaire's Vinegar (Benjamin Wallace)

Wednesday, January 07, 2009
Beginning around the 1950's, wine collecting (especially older, rare vintages) began to take off in North America. The hobby had been a pasttime in Europe and the UK for years but it came later to the United States. As collectors became eager to outdo one another in obtaining even older vintages by the top French Chateaux, bottles soon were priced out of the range of your average collector. Auction houses such as Sotheby's and Christies created whole departments devoted to authenticating and auctioning off fragile bottles of fermented grape juice to the highest bidders. Long forgotten cellers full of increasingly valuable liquid assets began to slowly run dry. Then, in 1985, a mysterious German collector popped onto the scene with an impossible find - a basement full of 200 year old bottles belonging to a long dead former President; and he was ready to sell.

The first bottle auctioned off quickly becomes the most expensive bottle of wine ever sold and collectors are eager for more despite questions over it's authenticity from the President's own historical society. The sale of the bottle, and a couple of it's companions, infuses new energy into the quest for the ever more elusive wines and the mysterious German does not disappoint. Its not until a few years after the original bottle's sale that some of his customers begin to question his finds. Old vintages taste surprisingly young, some suddenly appear in sizes that most experts, including the Chateaux owners themselves can't find evidence of being bottled, and he refuses to reveal the exact locations of his finds. Is this mysterious German collector (and his rare vintages) a fraud or is he the luckiest collector of them all?

Benjamin Wallace takes the reader on an interesting, albeit at times confusing, journey into the world of wine. It's a secret world full of private clubs of elite oenophiles with names like "The Group", wine tastings that last for days and outrageous sums of money being spent on what just might be the most expensive balsamic vinegar ever. The story Wallace tells is, as I said, an interesting one but every page is riddled with dates, Chateaux names, and the names attributed to the various sizes of bottles different wineries or Chateaux use. To be fair, there's no way of really getting around this if he's to tell the story acurately but for someone such as myself who doesn't normally consume wine and wouldn't know the difference between a Burgundy and a Bourdeaux even if I bathed in them, it became quite the chore. It wasn't until halfway through the book that I finally understood the difference between a vertical and a horizontal tasting (vertical is a tasting where one wine in a number of different vintages is sampled and a horizontal is where many different "brands" of a particular type of wine from the same year are sampled).

I would certainly recommend The Billionaire's Vinegar to fellow readers. It's a fascinating glimpse into a world few of us know anything about, and with a mystery that's sure to keep you turning page after page. My only suggestion? Grab a glass of your favourite vino to enjoy while you read, whether it costs $1.99 a bottle or $150,000.

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