Articles and Reviews

Book Review: The Billionaire’s Vinegar by Benjamin Wallace

Posted by: Andy Kelly

Date: 15-05-2020

Okay, so I’ve not really been reading any books for pleasure this year. A lot of my reading has been around doing research for projects on this website and I’ve just not been inclined to pick up and just enjoy a book.

The weather for the UK in mid-April has been better than good and I found myself at a loose end for a couple of days so I found a book, plonked (see what I did there!) myself in the garden and got reading. What a book it was.

The Billionaire’s vinegar is a true story about a chance discovery of bottles of wine belonging to Thomas Jefferson that were uncovered in Paris in the mid 1980’s and the subsequent sale of one of the bottles at auction. There’s only one snag however, nobody really knows how the bottles were found or even if they belonged to Thomas Jefferson. Nobody can definitely tell if the bottles are even that old!

The book is brilliantly well written and blends a healthy dose of history with exquisite scene setting and story-telling, making the book a real page turner. Whilst there are many key figures in the book whose stories make for interesting reading, the story of Thomas Jefferson looms large over the narrative. You get an interesting glimpse into his psyche and many oenophiles will enjoy his passion and the great lengths that he went in order to promote his favourite drink. He was a keen drinker, an avid importer and a meticulous record keeper.

It’s hard to have sympathy for any of the other characters however. The exorbitant amounts of money paid for bottles of wine by people who had more money than brain cells is distasteful and there are plenty of examples throughout the narrative. Hardy Rodenstock, one of the main protagonists in the book, is as mysterious as he is clever though even the most amateur of amateur detectives and historians will be banging their heads against the wall at the sheer ignorance of the fine and & rare wine industry.

Michael Broadbent, the charming Christie’s wine auctioneer and much-loved figure in the English wine scene also looms large. Much time is quite rightly given to his accomplishments but as the book wears on you can’t help but want to grab him by the scruff of the neck, tell him to stop comparing wine to schoolgirl’s uniforms and get his act together! It wouldn’t do much good though, as all journalists in the wine industry that feature throughout the book are in the same boat as he is. I guess when you’re drinking wine as good as they say then does it really matter where it came from?

One final note on this book is that it is not available for purchase in the UK. This is an absolute travesty and boils down to a lawsuit filed after the book was published. I’ll say no more than that, though readers in the UK should be able to circumvent this idiocy through traditional purchasing methods.

If you’re looking for a book that’s got a healthy dose of history and intrigue then this may be the book for you. It’s accessible, easy to read, and no in-depth knowledge of wine is required. Give it a go, it’s well worth a read.