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.

Don't forget to participate in Slate's Twitter wine tasting on Wednesday, Aug. 26. Compare your palate with Mike Steinberger's while participating from home.

Last month, British wine expert Michael Broadbent filed a libel suit in London against Random House over Benjamin Wallace's best-selling book, The Billionaire's Vinegar. Broadbent, the legendary former head of Christie's wine department, alleges that Wallace defamed him in his gripping whodunit about the so-called Thomas Jefferson bottles—a trove of wines initially said to have belonged to the oenophilic Virginian but now almost universally believed to have been fakes. Three of the bottles, all Bordeaux, were auctioned off by Broadbent in the 1980s, and of the many wine luminaries caught up in this saga, his reputation has suffered the most damage. Broadbent contends that he was falsely depicted in the book as being complicit in a crime. But his suit makes no claims one way or another regarding the authenticity of the wines that he sold, which can be taken as an acknowledgment that the evidence is not in his favor. Broadbent can't undo the fact that he was at the center of what now appears to have been the greatest wine hoax ever perpetrated. By pursuing legal redress, he is simply making it harder for a more considered judgment of his actions to emerge.

I should acknowledge here that Wallace and I are friends and have engaged in some literary back-scratching. I read a draft of The Billionaire's Vinegar and offered a few suggestions, and he provided a blurb for my recently published book, Au Revoir to All That. I'm not friends with the 82-year-old plaintiff, but I have had the pleasure of meeting him several times and have found him to be a very engaging figure. The tall, dapper Broadbent is the gray eminence of fine wine, admired for the breadth of his experience and cherished for his veddy British mannerisms: riding his bike to work each day through central London dressed in a bespoke suit and trilby hat; taking the midmorning break known as elevenses for a nip of Madeira or Champagne.

Broadbent, who holds the coveted Master of Wine diploma, has probably tasted more rarities than anyone alive and, quite possibly, any person in history. In nearly six decades in the wine business, he has amassed around 100,000 tasting notes for bottles dating as far back as the 17th century. And Broadbent has never been shy about trumpeting his expertise. ''You'd recognize Churchill or Eisenhower or de Gaulle, the minute you see them,'' he told the New York Times in a profile in 2002. ''I recognize certain wines at the first taste and often before I taste them, when they're poured into the glass and when I nose them. I doubt if I'd ever mistake a Mouton '45 or a Mas de Domaine Gassac '82.''

But as The Billionaire's Vinegar makes clear, it's one thing to be able to sniff out a 20th century wine that you've tasted multiple times; it is quite another to try to verify the authenticity of a 200-year-old Bordeaux that you've never encountered. In 1985, a German rock-music impresario-turned-wine dealer named Hardy Rodenstock claimed to have come into possession of a handful of bottles that he said were originally owned by Thomas Jefferson. He didn't say who had sold him the wines, which were all engraved with the initials Th.J; he said only that they had been discovered hidden behind a wall in a cellar in Paris at a location he refused to divulge. Despite Rodenstock's caginess and the skepticism expressed early on by a number of people, notably a researcher at Monticello, Broadbent was convinced the wines were genuine and proceeded to sell a trio of them. The first, purportedly a 1787 Château Lafite, was put on the block at a Christie's auction held in London in December 1985, and with Broadbent wielding the hammer, Malcolm Forbes bought it for $156,450, still a record price for a single bottle. Rodenstock subsequently sold several bottles directly himself, four of which ended up in the hands of billionaire American industrialist William Koch.

In 2005, Koch learned that Jefferson, who diligently recorded his wine purchases, had made no reference to any of the bottles that Rodenstock had passed off as belonging to him. Koch hired some investigators to probe the matter, and it was determined that the initials on the bottles were fake—they had been put on the bottles using a power tool. On the basis of this discovery, Koch sued Rodenstock three years ago for fraud. The initial case was thrown out because of jurisdictional issues, and Koch last year filed a new suit, which is still pending. Koch's sleuthing also uncovered another suggestive detail: Rodenstock was an assumed name—he was born Meinhard Goerke.

As Wallace meticulously documents, Broadbent repeatedly and insistently vouched for Rodenstock and the Jefferson bottles. He was dismissive of the researcher at Monticello who cast doubt on the authenticity of the wines and of questions raised in the press. In addition to doing business with Rodenstock, Broadbent benefited from his largesse. Rodenstock was famous in wine circles for the marathon tastings that he held, multi-day extravaganzas that typically featured wines back to the 18th century. Broadbent attended these bacchanals, served as the authority-in-residence during them, and came away with tasting notes for many old and exceedingly rare wines. If, as now seems undeniable, Rodenstock was a con artist who trafficked in counterfeit wines, those tasting notes are worthless.

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.

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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