In 1985, Malcolm Forbes' son Kip, acting for his father, paid $156,000 for a bottle of 1787 Chateau Lafite, part of a cache said to have been ordered by Thomas Jefferson but never delivered and found by workmen renovating an old house in Paris. The sale, and the huge publicity surrounding it, launched an era of what can only be called wretched excess (judging from some of the "tasting" menus) and of a hugely profitable market in fraudulent antique wine "discoveries" - a burgeoning hoax that would eventually tar several of the world's leading wine experts, notably longtime Christie's chief wine auctioneer Michael Broadbent (and to a lesser extent Robert Parker, creator of the controversial 100-point rating scale for wine).
It also cost any number of multimillionaire collectors an astounding amount of money, although Benjamin Wallace, author of The Billionaire's Vinegar: The Mystery of the World's Most Expensive Bottle of Wine, makes it clear that some deserved it: Wallace's stories of 12-hour tastings of rare wines, of eccentric tycoon-turned-America's Cup winner Bill Koch's extravagant wine cellar, and of the growing number of warning signs (holes in Jefferson's meticulous record-keeping, dealers offering multiple cases of wine that had been made in limited numbers) ignored or downplayed by the industry are a reminder that collecting is itself a sort of mania.
It's also competitive, and Koch, who eventually spent another fortune to prove the fraud, is more concerned with revenge than restitution. The villain of the piece is Hardy Rodenstock (an alias, as it turns out), who persuades some of the most prestigious wine tasters in the world that he is the Indiana Jones of antique vintages, particularly 18th-century Yquem, first growth Bordeaux and, of course, the "Th.J." bottles. The "hero," if there is one, is an unlikely team of investigators and scientists that is in itself fairly astounding.
Wallace's painstaking research, his often pungent descriptions and an ability to temper his cliffhangers as he ducks and weaves with the narratives, make this a terrific read.
Eve Zibart is a former restaurant critic for the Washington Post and author of The Ethnic Food Lover's Companion.