I was looking through the stacks of my local library and came across Benjamin Wallace’s intriguing book The Billionaire’s Vinegar (Crown Publishers 2008). It had a nice cover image of a single bottle and it was obviously a non-fiction book so I took the chance and borrowed it. I had read other books along the same lines including most recently The Lost City of Z by David Grann and thought another non-fiction book was in order for reading this fall. So I delved into the world of antique and rare wine collecting.
Wallace’s book reads like the long version of his magazine articles must read, full of names, places and facts, blended together in an informative concoction for the reader, much like the wine he is talking about. Easily lost in the adventure I read this book fairly quickly, but once I set it down I felt there needed to be more craft in the draft-so to type. I will get to a specific critic in a moment.
My personal wine experience is exceedingly limited to tastes of table wines Don Simone of Spain and Japanese Mercian Rose or Red, and once Carlos Rossi Rose, so this world of the top chateaux was new to me. What I learned were the top names, those most famous from Bordeaux; Branne-Mouton (now Mouton-Rothchild), Yquem, Petrus and Lafite (these were named the most often). There are other type of wine mentioned, like Madeiras and Champagne, as well as fortified types like port-Sandman mentioned, but I will invariably get them confused. Still the names will stick with me. To my surprise I recognized Mouton on the a bottle while walking through Costco just the other day.
Besides names of wines I heard three names over and over to the point of journalistic annoyance. Understandably these were integral to the story in driving home his point. The first was wine critic and Christie’s auctioneer Micheal Broadbent, the leading authority who vouched for the authenticity of the bottle in question and was connected to other main character, the elusive Hardy Rodenstock. Both were connected in the wine world, mainly from the bottle purportedly owned by Thomas Jefferson. The Jefferson/Broadbent/Rodenstock names show up so often over the course of the book. There is some trouble here as two of these characters eventually lose steam, and one sticks out like a sore thumb. Wallace does a good job in developing Jefferson early on in the narrative, but drops him out along with Broadbent for that matter, in pursuit of Hardy Rodenstock outrageous activities that eventually lead to the books conclusion.
On the conclusion, well it left me with a bitter taste in my mouth, reminiscent of Don Simone’s tannin bite. Sure there are things to savor, but it is the finish that is often remembered when it comes to books and wine. I believe Wallace needed a better ending, it was too abrupt without a poignant nail to be hammered home. The head of the nail is still sticking up, an annoyance for the mind to brush back over upon.
All in all The Billionaire’s Vinegar is a good read and informative as it should be. If you are familiar with wine you might be even more interested by it and understand it better. I give it three out of five.