The greatest wine hoax ever.

Wine, beer, and other potent potables.
Aug. 18 2009 1:35 PM

Veddy Unfortunate

How the greatest wine hoax ever has diminished a brilliant British oenophile.

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But contrary to what Broadbent is claiming in his lawsuit, The Billionaire's Vinegar does not suggest that he was a witting accomplice to Rodenstock. Rather, the portrait that emerges is of a man who let his hopes and competitive zeal cloud his judgment. For obvious reasons, auctioning off wines that once belonged to Jefferson promised to be the crowning glory of Broadbent's illustrious career, and having staked his credibility on those bottles, he was understandably reluctant to entertain the possibility that they were fakes. (In an interview last year with Jon Bonné of the San Francisco Chronicle, Broadbent defended his decision to sell the wines but conceded that not enough had been known about the circumstances under which the cache had been found. "We didn't have proof of where it came from," he said.) By Wallace's account, Broadbent was led astray by his enthusiasm and was duped by a very accomplished criminal.

Moreover, Broadbent wasn't the only one fooled. Rodenstock's circle of drinking buddies included some of the most seasoned collectors on the planet, and he also lured a number of eminent wine writers to his events, including the Wine Spectator's James Suckling and the most important critic of all, Robert Parker. During these tastings, Rodenstock made a point of collecting the empty bottles and refused to let guests inspect the corks, behavior that should have aroused suspicion. On the other hand, if the wines that he served were indeed counterfeits, they were convincing ones. Parker attended a Rodenstock tasting in 1995 and awarded 100 points to a magnum of 1921 Château Pétrus. But Château Pétrus does not believe that any magnums of the '21 were produced. In an interview with The New Yorker two years ago, Parker reaffirmed that the wine was "wonderful" and said that if it was a bogus bottle, Rodenstock was a remarkably gifted forger. "If that was a fake," Parker said, "he should be a mixer." The lesson, he added, was that even the most accomplished wine critics are not infallible.

Wine fraud is not like art fraud. With wine, there are multiple originals, and older ones will not always have been bottled and labeled the same way. (In the past, many now-prestigious wines like Pétrus were sold in bulk to merchants, who would do the bottling and packaging themselves.) Documentation concerning provenance is often scant or nonexistent, and there is little if any scholarship to draw on. Moreover, the same wine can evolve differently from one bottle to the next, and wine appraisal is an inherently subjective exercise involving two fickle instruments, the nose and the mouth. When the wines in question are decades or even centuries old and have been tasted by few if any living people, the assessments can be nothing more than educated guesses. I strongly suspect that if Rodenstock did perpetrate a scam, part of what motivated him was a desire to fool recognized authorities like Broadbent and Parker.

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Ironically, British rights to The Billionaire's Vinegar went unsold, presumably because U.K. publishers feared that either Broadbent or Rodenstock (or both) would take advantage of the country's notoriously stringent libel laws to pursue any grievances they had with the book. But according to the Daily Mail, some 2,000 copies have been purchased in Britain anyway (the book is available there through Amazon, and some brick-and-mortar booksellers have apparently also stocked it), and it is for this reason that Broadbent was able to file the suit in London. Neither he nor his attorney would comment on the case, and Wallace has been advised to put a cork in it as well.

Robert Parker, in a comment on his Web site, said the lawsuit was "a mistake" that would serve only to gin up more interest in Broadbent's "cozy relationship vis a vis the mysterious Hardy Rodenstock." Given that Broadbent is now a litigious mood, this was dangerously loaded wording, but Parker was right. Broadbent's reputation has been tarnished by his entanglement with Rodenstock, but the unfortunate denouement to his career doesn't diminish his accomplishments. He has accumulated an unparalleled amount of knowledge and experience and has served the cause of fine wine and good drinking with class, humor, and aplomb. His knowledge and experience didn't fail him in the Rodenstock affair; his judgment did, and while the episode has left an indelible stain on his record, it doesn't obviate his achievements or make him unworthy of respect. But by suing Wallace for libel, Broadbent is only drawing more attention to the stain.

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