Rod Byers: Pssst, wanna buy a Rolex? |

Rod Byers: Pssst, wanna buy a Rolex?

On a recent segment of 60 Minutes, there was a feature about a woman who purchased a painting for $5 at a garage sale. She intended to use it as a dart board. Good thing she never actually threw a dart at it because she later concluded that it was a Jackson Pollack original worth millions. Trouble was, it wasn’t signed. Before she could cash in she needed the art community to vouch for the painting’s authenticity. It raises the question, in the absence of proof, what’s real?

What’s this got to do with wine, you’re thinking? Well, a juicy wine story full of famous names, rare vintages, and claims of fraud that was in the news 20 years ago has resurfaced. But in this story the bottles were signed, at least sort of.

This story revolves around the discovery of several dozen wine bottles dated from the 1780s with the initials Th.J engraved in the glass. The bottles were reportedly owned by Thomas Jefferson, America’s first wine connoisseur. In 1985 a bottle of 1787 Lafite from Bordeaux was purchased by the Forbes family at auction for $156,000, the highest price paid, ever, for a bottle of wine and a record that still stands today.

A recently published book has brought this 20 year old story back to life. The Billionaire’s Vinegar by Benjamin Wallace chronicles the dubious pedigree of the wines involved.

Wine being sold as something other than what is actually in the bottle is hardly news-breaking. As early as the first century AD, Pliney the Elder complained that not even the nobility enjoyed wines that were genuine. History is loaded with stories of adulterated wine. So what’s the big deal?

One of the story lines of Wallace’s book is the dramatic rise in the price of old and rare wines since the 1970s. Christies, the venerable English auction house, has been banging the gavel down on everything from silver tea service to Van Goghs since the 1760s. In 1966, Michael Broadbent, a dean of the wine world, created the current Christies wine department. In his book Wallace describes Broadbent as a tomb raider, scouring the British countryside for manor houses with cobwebby dungeons full of old French Bordeaux. Not only did Broadbent find the wines, he helped, through Christies’ old and rare wine auctions, to create a market for them.

Broadbent’s timing couldn’t have been better, catching a wave of increasing interest in both gastronomy and wine that was rising through the 1970s into the 1980s. The sudden availability of wines, in some cases over 100 years of age, from the most prestigious chateaus of Bordeaux was gasoline on a fire of increasing demand.

It became a feeding frenzy for a band of super rich American wine collectors known as The Group. First they started collecting the wines. Then they started putting together extravagant tastings showcasing their collections. One held a tasting of 47 years of Chateau Lafite only to be outdone by another amassing 115 different years. One had a cellar of 10,000 bottles, another 30,000 and another 65,000 bottles. There seemed no end in sight.

But by the mid 1980s the archeological heyday of finding undiscovered cellars was ending. Prices, fueled by demand, were soaring. A magnum of 1864 Lafite that sold for $225 in Christies’ original old and rare auction in 1967 fetched $10,000 in an auction in 1981.

At the same time another group of wine collectors were sharing similar experiences with old and rare wines in Germany. Hardy Rodenstock was part of this group. It was Rodenstock who announced in 1985 that he had purchased an undiscovered cache of Bordeaux from the 1784 and 1787 vintages, with the initials Th.J engraved in the glass.

As Wallace explains in his book, “A 198-year-old bottle of Lafite was beyond rare; one that had once belonged to America’s third president, Thomas Jefferson, was stunning.” It wasn’t long before Broadbent persuaded Rodenstock to allow Christies to offer one of the Jefferson bottles at auction. That was the 1787 Lafite that set the all time record.

Among elite wine circles Rodenstock was famous for his annual wine weekend where he would present exceedingly extravagant tastings. Over the years they expanded into ever larger mind boggling forays of decadence. In 1989 he capped everything by recreating the Three Emperors Dinner, a royal dinner that had taken place in Paris in 1867. He replicated the entire menu including the exact years of the wines served at the dinner 122 years earlier including an 1810 Madeira, an 1846 Chambertin and an 1848 Lafite among many others.

But gradually Rodenstock’s luster started fraying around the edges. In the old and rare wine scene the rarest of the rare always seemed to be discovered by him. He refused to reveal his sources and after tastings, whisked the pulled corks and empty bottles away. Plus there was the question of the wine itself. At one event wine connoisseurs commented that four different bottles all tasted as if poured from the same bottle. At other events tasters deemed that the wines simply didn’t taste correct. The word “fake” started showing up in tasting notes. In the genteel world of rare wines little was mentioned publicly but suspicions were deepening about the authenticity of Rodenstock’s bottles.

During the mid 1980s billionaire Bill Koch became a serious wine collector ultimately assembling a 40,000 bottle cellar. In 1988 he bought one and then three more of the Jefferson bottles.

The question of the authenticity of the Jefferson bottles really hit a snag in 2005. The Boston Museum of Fine Arts wanted to do an exposition of the eclectic collections of Bill Koch. His interests far exceeded wine, including sculptures, paintings, western memorabilia and rare coins. The museum required a provenance for everything displayed and he couldn’t provide it for the Jefferson bottles. When he contacted Monticello, Jefferson’s Virginia estate, they said they didn’t believe the bottles ever belonged to Jefferson.

Koch, who admits he hates to be taken advantage of, wanted to get to the bottom of it. Beyond that, he was a billionaire with a twitchy lawsuit trigger finger. He hired a team to investigate Rodenstock and the authenticity of the bottles. He spent half a million dollars to buy the Jefferson bottles. He spent a million and a half dollars investigating them. A combination of gumshoe sleuthing, engraving analysis and high tech science like carbon dating and germanium detectors were all employed to verify the age of the wine and the bottles. Finally, in August 2006 he filed a lawsuit against Rodenstock for fraud.

During the course of Koch’s investigation they turned up lots of damning circumstantial evidence including the fact that the bottle engraving couldn’t have been done with the tools available in the 18th century. But the high tech science tests were inconclusive. Rodenstock continued not to reveal the source of the Jefferson bottles and had an answer defending each accusation. Koch was quoted as saying that even if this lawsuit gets thrown out he has enough evidence to file five more. He may need it. In February, 2008 a New York judge dismissed the case on a technicality. We’ll have to wait to see how this turns out because Koch said he intends to refile.

Rod Byers is Director of Marketing at Nevada City Winery, is a CSW certified wine educator, teaches wine classes at Sierra College and is a California State Certified Wine Judge. He can be reached by e-mail at or by phone at 530-913-3703.

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