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Originally published Friday, May 16, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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Benjamin Wallace explores fine wines in "The Billionaire's Vinegar"

At the heart of the book is a mystery, never fully explained: What's the true story behind the bottle of 1787 Château Lafite, engraved with the initials "Th. J," which sold at auction in 1985 for a world-record price of $156,000?

Special to The Seattle Times

"The Billionaire's Vinegar: The Mystery of the World's Most Expensive Bottle of Wine"

by Benjamin Wallace

Crown, 319 pp., $24.95

It certainly must hurt to pay more than $100,000 for a bottle of 18th-century French wine — supposedly once owned by Thomas Jefferson — and then find out, years later, that perhaps it isn't authentic.

Haven't had that problem lately? Granted, it's a predicament few encounter.

But that only makes Benjamin Wallace's book "The Billionaire's Vinegar" that much more of an accomplishment.

We commoners don't jet off to Europe for weeklong wine tastings. We don't argue over what a 200-year-old wine "should" taste like. We don't have locked, climate-controlled wine cellars stocked with all the important Old World vintages.

But Wallace takes us into the world of people who do, and helps us enjoy the ride by combining years of in-depth journalistic research with solid storytelling skills of plot, pacing, character development and an eye for the telling detail and engaging anecdote.

The fact that we'll never own a 1784 Margaux, for example, only adds to our fun when we read about a pompous wine retailer who bumps his against a serving trolley at a New York restaurant, with disastrous results.

At the heart of the book is a mystery, never fully explained: What's the true story behind the bottle of 1787 Château Lafite, engraved with the initials "Th. J," which sold at auction in 1985 for a world-record price of $156,000?

The dark-green bottle, bearing no label, was sold to Kip Forbes, son of the late publisher Malcolm Forbes, after a bidding war that boosted the price to more than four times the previous record.

But were the initials truly carved into the bottle to indicate it had been purchased by Thomas Jefferson, one of the preeminent wine connoisseurs of his day? Or were they put there in more modern times, perhaps with a dental drill?

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Forbes is merely a money-laden small player in this drama. The key character is a secretive German wine collector named Hardy Rodenstock who came up with the bottle and will disclose few details about where and how he found it.

Rodenstock, it turns out, seems to have a penchant for discovering pre-1800 bottles, a good number of them engraved with the Jefferson initials. Had they been hidden behind the walls of Paris mansions to keep them from the pillaging hordes of the French Revolution? Or were they cooked up by Rodenstock himself in an elaborate counterfeiting scheme?

If Rodenstock were universally regarded as a phony, Wallace might not have had much of a book. But instead, the top names in the wine world make appearances at Rodenstock's tastings, enjoying what often seems his over-the-top hospitality.

Eventually, the supply of questionable bottles of super-old wines from Rodenstock and other sources threatens to rock the antique-wine-loving world to its foundations, and Wallace takes us into a secret meeting of wine-market players concerned their business may be "awash in fakes."

This is the first book by Wallace, former executive editor of Philadelphia magazine. No one gets killed in this mystery, as far as we can tell, and it may be a challenge for the movie studio that purchased rights to translate it into a gripping film. Likewise, it's not clear that readers with little or no interest in wine will find the book engaging.

But for anyone with at least a curiosity about precious old wines and the love of a good story, this well-crafted piece of journalism may prove as intriguing and enjoyable as a fine old Bordeaux.

Jack Broom is a Seattle Times news reporter.

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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