Billions Ain’t Brains

The Billionaire’s Vinegar: The Mystery of the World’s Most Expensive Bottle of Wine
Benjamin Wallace

Disease, delerium and death and the year has barely begun.  Maybe the Mayans were right.

My absence explained I turn to a complaint: why is the WordPress app for the iPad so bad? Honestly, I find myself drafting in Evernote and finishing on a desktop or laptop because too many things have gotten lost. Someone ought to focus on that rather than endlessly developing themes.

Which brings me to one of those lost posts. I lived in Manhattan during the last decade and a half of the 20th century and used to walk to work. One of those rambles to Midtown took me past a dusty store jam-packed with wines I could never afford. But they had a bargain bin that was more interesting, and no more expensive, than my local so I’d occasionally stop in.

As I remember it, and memory is a fallible tool for facts let alone impressions, there was an oddly-shaped bottle with a hand-lettered sign at the store. It may have been in the window; I seem to remember it above the register under a pin spot. The sign claimed the bottle had been owned by Thomas Jefferson and offered it for sale for an eye-popping six figures.

This book is about that bottle and its siblings.

When it comes to wine I’m more Rumpole than Rothschild. Economic circumstance has led me to believe anyone can make a great, expensive bottle of wine. Pull that trick of at an everyday price and I’m your man. But, I digress. The present volume focuses on the end of the market that trades in both Rothschilds, Margaux, Yquem and other storied (that’s a synonym for expensive) names.

Wallace tells the story of an emerging group of super-collectors in the last third of the 20th century. Fueled (originally) by British deaccession of family cellars built during the heyday of the British empire, things really get going when the money of the Reagan era began sloshing around the markets.

Even a bad economics student has heard the old warhorse on inflation. This is, in part, a cautionary tale about finite inventories and copious amounts of discretionary income.  That the pricing becomes wildly inflated is no surprise. The very rich are very different from you and me. The utility of a purchase often takes a back seat to other aspects. Collectible wines are the epitome of a positional good, meant to send a signal about the purchaser.

Let’s do a thought experiment. Suppose you were  looking to make a quick buck and have few moral restraints. Which offers a better target: a large group who can’t be cavalier with their cash and therefore engage in some scrutiny ,or a smaller group of price-be-damned wealthy people looking to one up each other. If you’re into the big get over you’d pick the latter every time, if only to minimize your trouble.

That, essentially, is this tale. It’s almost impossible to prove a long con because the succesful grifter rarely talks. What we have is  evidence–lots and lots of circumstantial and some hard facts–and a terribly plausible story line.

Many tales like this make great long-form magazine stories and suffer at book length. Wallace makes it worth the extra work. He is a fine stylist with an eye for character and an ability to gather the welter of egos, producers and sellers into a coherent tale.

Now about that billionaire. He would be Bill Koch, the least retiring of the Koch brothers. I have a colleague who shares the paranoid-Liberal obsession with the Kochs and I have to confess, I knew at the outset there was some connection between a Koch and fraudulent wine. Rags to rags in 3 generations is another old saw and once you read this you’ll know why. Money measures money–it’s a pretty poor indicator of almost everything else.

Look at this as part of Bill Koch’s  works ye mightys….and don’t despair.


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