Read The Billionaire's Vinegar Online

Authors: Benjamin Wallace

The Billionaire's Vinegar (5 page)

The debut Heublein auction, which occasioned Broadbent’s first trip across the Atlantic, took place at the Continental Plaza Hotel in Chicago in May of 1969. Broadbent’s over-the-top Englishness played well in America, and he hammed it up, wearing a tailcoat with a red carnation in the lapel. When opening sample bottles for the slack-jawed North American rubes, he stagily took his time with the mechanics of wine service: skimming the capsule, drawing the cork, and decanting the liquid contents. The knockdown totals (the sum of an auction’s winning bids) climbed quickly, from $56,000 the first year to $106,000 the second to $231,000 the third. These were huge sums for a single auction, compared with London results. The power and scale of the American market was obvious.

Peter Morrell, a twenty-six-year-old wine retailer in New York who felt that he needed experience with pre-phylloxera Bordeaux, made news around the world in 1970 when he bid £220 (at the time about $500) for a double magnum of 1865 Lafite originally from the Rosebery cellar. When he was interviewed for television, the reporter was incredulous at how much he had paid, and quipped to viewers that even if it was vinegar, Morrell would have “the world’s most expensive salad dressing.” A record wine bid was newsworthy. Five hundred dollars for a bottle was still shocking.

The whole thing was a flack’s dream—for Heublein, for Christie’s, and for those shrewd retailers and restaurateurs who had discerned a media loophole: making a record bid for a bottle of wine guaranteed press coverage, and it was much cheaper and more impressive than a quarter-page ad. The trend really took off at the third Heublein auction, when Broadbent sold an 1846 Lafite for $5,000, a new record by a long shot. Soon the numbers went much higher, way beyond the records Christie’s was setting in London. A Memphis restaurant owner paid $31,000 for an 1822 Lafite. A Dallas wine merchant topped that with a $38,000 bid for a Jéroboam of 1870 Mouton.

Broadbent sewed up the American market. In addition to the Christie’s sales in London, which drew lots of American bidders, and Heublein, which was the dominant U.S. auction and which Broadbent ran through 1982, he also was brought in to run the annual Napa Valley charity auction, which began in 1981. The first year, the temperature reached 110 degrees Fahrenheit, and up on the dais, Broadbent cooled his feet, unseen by the auctiongoers, in a bucket of ice water. In 1981, in Chicago, Christie’s started running its own auctions in the United States.

The wine-collecting boom was limited to a tiny slice of Americans, but there was already a palpable unease, manifest as snobbery, among British wine veterans who could see their primacy being usurped. “As a group,”
Decanter
noted in 1986, “American doctors seem to have the world’s greatest interest in great Bordeaux.” The record-chasing was offered up as further evidence of American puerility. And while the California wine industry was nudging American awareness of its product forward, as of 1980 a national poll found that 23 percent of wine drunk in the United States was on the rocks.

The high end of the market, however, was coming to be dominated by Americans, and the high end of the high end had given itself a name: “the Group.” They owned huge collections of wine. Marvin Overton III, a Texas neurosurgeon who sometimes wore a bolo tie combined with a fur coat, had 10,000 bottles in his cellar. Lloyd Flatt, an eye-patch-wearing Tennessean of shadowy occupation, owned two townhomes in New Orleans; one housed him, the other his 30,000-bottle wine collection. Tawfiq Khoury, a San Diego shopping-mall developer, owned 65,000 bottles, thought to be the largest private collection of wine in America at the time. As wine became detached from its traditional role as a table beverage—as it became a fetish or a trophy or an investment—it became more common to find private collections of wine that far exceeded their owners’ abilities to drink them.

“Wine became the soloist,” Broadbent said later.

The Group pioneered a new type of event known as a mega-tasting, which could take either of two forms: horizontal (many wines from one vintage) and vertical (many vintages of one wine). Broadbent dated the very first horizontal tasting to 1968, when a Dutch physician named John Taams brought together several wines of the 1961 vintage, but it was in the late 1970s, in the hands of these new American supercollectors, that the format gained traction. Overton hosted a forty-seven-vintage vertical tasting of Latour in Fort Worth in 1976, and followed that up three years later with a thirty-six-vintage vertical of Lafite going back to 1799. Broadbent presided, alongside Baron Elie de Rothschild.

“If it hadn’t been for my time in the U.S., I wouldn’t be so involved in this hobby,” Wolfgang Grünewald, a German-born businessman whose 32,000-bottle collection is among the world’s largest, and who before retiring to Switzerland owned a Los Angeles steel company and was a partner in the Melrose Avenue restaurant Patina, said later. “Americans have a curiosity, for special and rare things, that I haven’t met elsewhere.”

Not everyone in the wine world was thrilled by these events. The most common criticism was that great wines that, in isolation, would be once-in-a-lifetime experiences, were lost amid the hypercritical, side-by-side comparisons of a mega-tasting (what one commentator termed “the crushing proximity of the giants”). What should have been pleasurable was reduced to an arid and world-weary intellectual exercise. At big tastings, great wines were spat out rather than drunk, and when served without food, they were stripped of their natural context.

The events favored “big” wines—those with lots of fruit and concentration. In such a clinical setting, these were the wines that tended to show best. And after twenty or thirty or forty wines, palate fatigue set in for most tasters, and only the biggest wines would make a taster sit up and notice. There could be dental side effects as well: an Australian study of wine judges’ teeth found instances of severe damage and recommended not brushing one’s teeth on the morning of a tasting, in order to leave protective plaque in place.

A low-grade dishonesty often permeated the Group’s events, diplomatic euphemism taking the place of candor when a bottle brought by a fellow guest wasn’t quite up to snuff. Outside of the Group, events weren’t cheap; most of the mega-tastings cost thousands of dollars to attend. Some participants couldn’t help feeling a bit queasy over the sheer decadence and extravagance. “I feel a genuine sadness about vertical tastings that has always left me feeling as if I needed a soul-cleansing afterwards,” wrote the Los Angeles wine journalist Dan Berger.

         

T
HE MEGA-TASTINGS ALSO,
of course, depleted the rarities unearthed and sold by Broadbent. Edmund Penning-Rowsell, a whiskery socialist and claret scholar who covered wine auctions for the
Financial Times,
observed that as early as 1973 there had been a lull in the discovery of English cellars. But in 1976 there was a resurgence of finds, most in Paris and Bordeaux and a few in the United Kingdom, such as Woodperry House in Oxfordshire. The next year, Penning-Rowsell was able to write of an “extraordinary recrudescence” of rare bottles in the auction room.

With the familiar sources drying up, some of this new torrent seemed quite fantastical in origin, but then, exotic discoveries were a staple of wine history. In 1925, the old-line Piccadilly wine merchants Berry Brothers had unearthed a cache of early-nineteenth-century Tokaji vintages that had been walled up by the Princely House of Bretzenheim in anticipation of the revolution of 1848. Now, in the late 1970s and early 1980s, similar hidden troves came to light. Ten Broeck Mansion, the home of a Revolutionary war general in Albany, New York, yielded a forgotten stash of nineteenth-century bottles that were auctioned at Heublein starting in 1978. Some bottles at the 1980 Heublein auction, including an 1836 Sercial Madeira, had been salvaged by divers from a ship that sank off the coast of Savannah in 1840.

By 1985, even as occasional odd finds continued to trickle in, it was clear that the heyday of claret archaeology was over. Since old cellars were a Christie’s franchise, their virtual disappearance enabled Sotheby’s wine department to begin to close the competitive gap. The watershed 1982 Bordeaux vintage had sent prices, along with American interest in wine, to new heights. Then, in February of 1985, the dollar hit a historical peak. The Reagan boom was cresting, and the American appetite for old wine was insatiable. For Christie’s, there was money to be made, and competition to face down. Broadbent was more aggressive than ever. He wasn’t about to let anyone else bring his winning streak to an end.

C
HAPTER
4

M
ONSIEUR
Y
QUEM

I
N
A
PRIL OF
1985, H
ARDY
R
ODENSTOCK, WHO HAD
recently moved into the lakeside home of a Munich construction heiress, told some German wine friends he’d just received a phone call about an astonishing discovery in Paris. He took the next plane, he wrote later, “and took a look at the cellar, bottles and everything.” A hidden cellar had been breached when a house built in the mid–eighteenth century was being torn down. It contained about a hundred bottles. Two dozen were engraved with the initials “Th.J.” They included bottles of Lafite, Margaux, Yquem, and Branne-Mouton, as Mouton-Rothschild had been called in Jefferson’s day, from the 1784 and 1787 vintages. Rodenstock said he paid 20,000 French francs for the lot, which at the time worked out to $2,227. The discovery was serendipitous for a number of reasons: While in 1985 Mouton was one of the most coveted wines in the world, in Jefferson’s day it was middle-of-the-pack and neither sought after nor collected; and Rodenstock had found the bottles just two years before the bicentennial of Jefferson’s visit to Bordeaux. When his friends pressed him for more details, Rodenstock clammed up.

The circle of collectors that had formed around Rodenstock by the time of the Jefferson bottles’ discovery was drawn together by wine, and they learned little about each other that did not pertain to it. To the world, Hardy Rodenstock presented a stolid moon of a face, barely interrupted by small, opaque eyes and the faintest suggestion of a mouth. He was physically unprepossessing. What you remembered about him were not the stippled-in details but the big-brush outlines. He wore his brown hair in a boyish shag that downplayed his forty-four years. He dressed flashily, favoring shiny double-breasted suits with big lapels, starched colored shirts with contrasting white collars and cuffs, sharply creased slacks, and modishly tinted plastic eyeglasses. Despite “dressing like a banker,” as an auctioneer recalled, he never seemed to have any money. He had a worldly mien, a quiet self-assurance that could come across as humility or aloofness. As he shook your hand, he would click his heels together.

How Rodenstock became interested in wine was a story that changed depending on who was asking him and when. There were three stories. The one he told least often, and which was given the least credence, was that he had started drinking wine as a child, with his grandfather. The one he told most often involved a Damascene conversion. After the funeral of a friend’s father in 1976, the son of the deceased served four of the most legendary wines in history out of the family cellar: 1961 Château Palmer, 1945 Mouton-Rothschild, 1947 Cheval Blanc, and 1921 Château d’Yquem. Palmer, a wine that was officially a third growth and unofficially considered to be just below the first growths in quality, was regarded, in the 1961 vintage, as sublime. Rodenstock said that tasting the four wines was a life-altering experience, and that he became instantly obsessed.

The third story—and the one that those in the German wine scene who had known Rodenstock longest believed to be the truth—was neither as simple as the first nor as mythic as the second. Rodenstock made his living managing
Schlager
acts—a style of easy-listening German pop music—and according to this version, he had booked some of his clients for a festival in Wiesbaden and gotten stiffed. The promoter had no money, and offered to pay him in cases of wine, his only currency. Rodenstock protested angrily that he drank beer and schnapps, but ended up driving a van to collect the wine. He forgot about it for a while, then during the winter he retrieved some of the bottles from his basement. They were white Burgundies, and he liked them. He bought more wine and soon did, indeed, become obsessed.

At first Rodenstock would invite music-business friends to drink with him, but as his interests turned increasingly toward the old and rare, he found their nuances were lost on those people. Many wine neophytes have a mentor who guides them through the intricacies of wine when they are just starting out. Self-taught, Rodenstock had no desire for a tutor, but he was eager to find likeminded appreciators with whom to share his experiences. He read
Essen und Trinken,
the first modern gastronomy magazine in Germany, and signed up for its tours of wine regions. Through these he met the wine journalist Heinz-Gert Woschek, and other readers, and was directly exposed to the châteaux for the first time. He found he had a particular interest in Bordeaux, and he arranged other visits privately.

When Woschek launched Germany’s first wine magazine,
Woscheks Wein Report
(soon renamed
Alles über Wein
), in 1981, Rodenstock began writing long articles that gave him further entrée to the châteaux and their owners. He became a regular buyer at wine auctions at Christie’s and Sotheby’s in London, and at Cave Nicolas, a merchant in Paris. He was a hobbyist who bought wine, but whose commerce with it was otherwise limited to the occasional one- or two-bottle trade with a fellow collector. Though he wasn’t wealthy, old wine was still relatively cheap. He lived with one of his clients, a moderately successful singer named Tina York, who was the younger sister of a well-known
Schlager
singer named Mary Roos, and her two Yorkies, in a remote area east of the Rhine called the Westerwald. It was a normal house, except that the cellar overflowed with bottles.

One of the places Rodenstock sought out wine fellowship in those early years was Fuente, a twenty-seven-seat restaurant in the town of Mulheim, near Düsseldorf. Well situated to serve the moneyed trenchermen who ran the big industrial companies headquartered in the region, it occupied an old house with a sign showing a horse being watered. Fuente was a star of the new German gastronomy, and served French nouvelle cuisine. Its lamb filet in pastry and its crayfish salad had drawn praise, and a star, from Michelin’s inspectors. The restaurant had opened in 1976, just when Rodenstock was developing a taste for wine in nearby Essen, and by 1978 he was a regular customer. Rolf-Dieter (Otto) Jung, the young owner with a Dundreary mustache and a cigarette always smoldering in a long holder, had built its wine list into one of the best in the country, with 350 labels and an inventory worth some $150,000. Rodenstock was looking for someone to talk to about wine, and would come in alone with a bottle or two to share with Jung.

         

G
ERMANY, LIKE
A
MERICA,
had only a modest tradition of enthusiasm for fine Bordeaux. At the end of the nineteenth century, one Hamburg restaurant had made a point of keeping at least one bottle of each of the sixty-two classed growths in its cellar. But the country remained essentially a beer-and-schnapps kind of place until the early 1970s, when its Western half began to experience a gastronomic awakening. As the decade progressed, wine lovers in a few centers like Hamburg and Wiesbaden started to find each other.

Some were restaurant owners; some were journalists; some were private collectors. They organized tastings and traded invitations, sometimes with members of the American Group. The transatlantic alliance quickly fell apart because “the Americans were unsophisticated and not generous,” said one participant. “They served some horrible bottles, and didn’t reciprocate in kind.” A German collector who was a half-Jewish Holocaust survivor was also put off when a member of the Group, at the Los Angeles restaurant Scandia, described fellow member Tawfiq Khoury, a Palestinian, as a “sand nigger.”

The most zealous of the Germans were distinguished by an obsession with a particular kind of wine, and they nicknamed each other accordingly. Uwe Könecke, who owned a small-truck dealership, became “Magnum Uwe” because of his preference for large-format bottles. A Swiss German named Walter Eigensatz, who with his wife owned several spas, was known as “Mr. Cheval Blanc.” A Munich businessman by the name of Hans-Peter Frericks was dubbed “Herr Pétrus.” Hardy Rodenstock was “Monsieur Yquem.”

There was something defiantly timeless about Yquem. Its syrupy concentration derived not only from noble rot but also from a meticulous, and expensive, production process. It went beyond the dramatically low yield. Each harvest, the château would send pickers through the vineyard an average of five times, and up to eleven, selecting only those grapes ready to be picked. The château hewed to rigorously high standards and, some years, released no wine at all. The result was a Sauternes that fetched astronomical prices and inspired cultish fervor, in no one so much as Rodenstock.

The wine scene in which Rodenstock began to move consisted largely of people who had amassed impressive collections, not just of young vintages but of old ones as well. They started to host tastings focused around rarities, which at first weren’t so hard to find. Old Bordeaux came up fairly often at auction, and they weren’t outrageously expensive. It was easy to find 1928s and 1929s of Latour and Mouton. You almost didn’t need to collect; the stuff was available at the store. One shop in Hamburg carried Burgundy from the 1930s and 1940s for eight dollars a bottle.

There was a romantic aspect to it all. Rodenstock and his new friends were “drinking history,” as they liked to say, and would commonly wax historical about what Goethe, Schiller, or Napoleon was doing in the year of the vintage they happened to be opening just then. There was a visual allure to the parade of old bottles, which could be delightfully heterogeneous. Because of the historic inconsistency of bottling (sometimes by customers’ butlers, sometimes by merchants, sometimes by châteaux), you could see three Lafites from the same year that all looked different. This was truer of wines older than the 1920s, when Baron Philippe de Rothschild first château-bottled his entire production, the first growths following suit soon thereafter.

In many ways, the rarities game was
Star Trek
for grown-ups. No women were invited to tastings, and the male collectors’ explanations for this tended to be halfhearted: There was only one bottle of each wine, not enough for spouses; it was wrong to forbid women to wear perfume, yet that would be necessary at a wine tasting. The reality was that the gender mix, or lack thereof, mirrored the wine world in general.

The boys’ club fostered a competitive atmosphere, and the connoisseurs prided themselves on deciding that an authority such as Broadbent was wrong in his assessment of a particular wine. Nothing pleased them more than to discover a “shadow vintage,” a year that was a great value because its proximity to a more famous vintage had caused it to be overlooked; come up with a brilliant new food-and-wine pairing; or have an inside line on esoterica such as Yquem’s little-known red wine, produced in small quantities for the consumption of its pickers at harvest time. The collectors oneupped each other with individual bottles—if one had a magnum, another had a double magnum—and with the lavishness of their tastings. In 1983, Walter Eigensatz, Mr. Cheval Blanc, hosted a vertical of his favorite wine in Wiesbaden and arranged for two white horses to lead a pre-tasting parade through the streets of the city.

The collectors would also try to psych each other out. A “Parker 100” tasting in Hamburg, which featured wines that had received a perfect score from the increasingly influential American wine critic Robert Parker, included what the Germans called a “pirate,” a mystery bottle—in this case, a mystery double magnum. Everyone stood around sniffing at their glasses and making guesses. Rodenstock went up to a well-fed, stubble-haired journalist named Mario Scheuermann and said he thought it was an old Pétrus. “Definitely not,” Scheuermann said. “It’s a ’61 La Chappelle.” It could not be, Rodenstock said; the 1961 La Chappelle, a red from the Rhône Valley, did not exist in big bottles. Scheuermann insisted it was, until Rodenstock conceded, “Little boy, maybe you are right.” And Scheuermann was. Mischievously, the host had decanted four regular bottles into the larger bottle. Scheuermann was able to guess this because the ’61 La Chappelle was his favorite wine. He had drunk it fifty times.

Egos and posturing aside, there was a genuine intellectual thrust to the tastings. The point, at least for the more serious collectors, was to learn more about Bordeaux; it was easier to begin to understand the character of a wine by comparing and analyzing different versions of the same thing than by studying things that were entirely different. “You know wine if you are able to drink good wine. In this way you get a matrix in the brain for tasting wine,” Fuente owner Otto Jung explained years later. “I laugh when someone says, ‘That’s a typical ’82,’ when he has only drunk three.” To really know a château, you had to have tasted its wine over a century of vintages.

To be a great taster also depended on one’s palate sensitivity and palate memory. Some members of the Rodenstock clique had an almost synesthetic reaction to wines; they didn’t merely smell and taste them, they saw them, each with its own shape and structure and character. Wines, for these super-tasters—as a Yale researcher has designated the small percentage of people with an especially high density of taste buds—were as starkly distinct and instantly recognizable as faces. Rodenstock was a good taster. Maybe he wasn’t the virtuoso some friends described (one claimed that given a room of unmarked 1985 Bordeaux, Rodenstock could pick out each château), but he was exceptional.

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