It was the most expensive bottle of wine ever sold.
In 1985, at a heated auction by Christie’s of London, a 1787 bottle of Château Lafite Bordeaux—one of a cache of bottles unearthed in a bricked-up Paris cellar and supposedly owned by Thomas Jefferson—went for $156,000 to a member of the Forbes family. The discoverer of the bottle was pop-band manager turned wine collector Hardy Rodenstock, who had a knack for finding extremely old and exquisite wines. But rumors about the bottle soon arose. Why wouldn’t Rodenstock reveal the exact location where it had been found? Was it part of a smuggled Nazi hoard? Or did his reticence conceal an even darker secret?
It would take more than two decades for those questions to be answered and involve a gallery of intriguing players—among them Michael Broadbent, the bicycle-riding British auctioneer who speaks of wines as if they are women and staked his reputation on the record-setting sale; Serena Sutcliffe, Broadbent’s elegant archrival, whose palate is covered by a hefty insurance policy; and Bill Koch, the extravagant Florida tycoon bent on exposing the truth about Rodenstock.
Pursuing the story from Monticello to London to Zurich to Munich and beyond, Benjamin Wallace also offers a mesmerizing history of wine, complete with vivid accounts of subterranean European laboratories where old vintages are dated and of Jefferson’s colorful, wine-soaked days in France, where he literally drank up the culture.
Suspenseful, witty, and thrillingly strange, The Billionaire’s Vinegar is the vintage tale of what could be the most elaborate con since the Hitler diaries. It is also the debut of an exceptionally powerful new voice in narrative non-fiction.
From the Hardcover edition.
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|Title of Business & Economics eBook: The Billionaire's Vinegar|
|Release Date: 05-13-2008|
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|Publisher: Crown Publishing Group|
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The Billionaire's Vinegar
A hush had come over the West Room. Photographers' flashes strobed the standing-room-only crowd silently, and the lone sound was the crisp voice of the auctioneer. To the world, Michael Broadbent projected a central-casting British cool, but under the bespoke suit, he was practicing a kind of mind control that calmed him in these situations. The trick was to focus narrowly, almost autistically, on numbers: lot number, number of bidders, paddle numbers, bid steps.
Even after all these years, he still found it bracingly creative to conjure excitement out of a heap of dirty old bottles. No matter how many of them the fifty-eight-year-old Broadbent might see, he retained his boyish sense of marvel at the longevity of wine. Inert antiques were all very well, but there was magic in old wine-a mysterious and wonderful alchemy in something that could live and change for two hundred years and still be drinkable.
Auctioneer was Broadbent's most public role, but it was only one of his distinctions in the wine world. In London he cut a familiar figure, pedaling to work each day on his Dutch ladies' bicycle with basket, legs gunning furiously, a trilby hat perched on his head. Often he was elsewhere, and he kept up a brutal schedule. As founding director of the Christie's wine department, he had spent the last two decades crisscrossing the planet, cataloging the dank and dusty contents of rich men's cellars, tasting tens of thousands of fine wines, and jotting his impressions in slender red hardcover notebooks. Those unassuming scribblings amounted to the most comprehensive diary of wine ever recorded. That diary now consisted of sixty of the Ideal note