Q&A with Benjamin Wallace, Author of The Billionaire's Vinegar
The journalist explores the world of rare wine collecting and its perils.
Benjamin Wallace is a star of the rare wine world. A Brooklyn, New York-based journalist who's a columnist for New York Magazine, Wallace made his name with his first book, the best-selling The Billionaire's Vinegar (Crown, 2008), about the world of rare wine collecting and a dramatic fraud perpetuated in it. The book, which examines the accusations leveled against wine collector Hardy Rodenstock, has been optioned to be made into a feature film. W.E. spoke with Wallace about wine fraud, sommelier training and his most memorable glass.
Wine Enthusiast: Have you come across any wine fraud cases that can be traced back to an individual, as in the Rodenstock case?
Benjamin Wallace: Rodenstock, by far, looms the largest in the individual history of wine fraud. The one other case that comes to mind involves Rudy Kurniawan [who was indicted May 2012, by a grand jury on counts of mail and wire fraud, including selling counterfeit wine]. He was this young, 20-something L.A. collector who amassed an amazing collection. He consigned part of [it] to auction through Acker Merrall [& Condit]. They were having their auction at Cru restaurant in Manhattan, selling a third of his collection for an estimated $20 million. Some of the wine in the sale was from Domaine Ponsot, in Burgundy, but from vintages that had never been bottled. They were obvious fakes. Laurent Ponsot flew into New York and dramaticallyinterrupted the auction. It was a big embarrassment to Acker Merrall. A lot of suspect wine was coming out of Kurniawan’s collection, and Kurniawan, like Rodenstock, had a mysterious background, including elaborate stories about why he changed his name. So his is a kind of parallel story to Rodenstock’s.
W.E.: What is your opinion of the extent of wine fraud, among rare bottles and generic wines?
BW: The world I’m mostly familiar with is that of the rare stuff. The lower-level wine fraud happens more in Asia than in the U.S., but I’ve heard of this anecdotally and [have] not come across much of it myself. [Among rare wines] there are certain wines with which it happens more frequently than others. If you go to a wine like the 1947 Cheval Blanc…Serena Sutcliffe, [board director and worldwide head of wine] of Sotheby’s wine auctions, would tell you [it] is the most faked wine in the world. A 1947 Cheval Blanc is as likely to be faked as not. I went to a [vertical] tasting of Cheval Blanc, and the centerpiece was the opening of the ’47. This was organized by [wine collector] Bipin Desai, who is as knowledgeable and well connected as anybody. He had sourced these three bottles. But before the tasting, he and the sommelier had agreed that one of them was fake, the other certainly genuine and the third could be either. With some of these wines, it’s very epistemologically uncertain.
W.E.: Did you ever think of studying wine at sommelier level, or are you more of a fan?
BW: I’m more of a fan. Since my book came out, I toyed with the idea of another book in which I would have pursued sommelier-level expertise, but I decided against it.
W.E.: Is there a single most memorable glass of wine that you can recall, for either the taste or the experience of drinking it?
BW: The three-day double vertical put on by Bipin Desai, with Yquem back to the late 1800s and Cheval Blanc back to 1921, was a great experience—my one personal exposure to the megatastings of yore. But the downside is that no one glass sticks out—they all blur together, I’m sad to say. The first time I drank Chateau Musar, with Michael Broadbent, over a lunch of potted shrimp and roast grouse in Piccadilly, was memorable for the company and context, but also for turning me on to Musar.
W.E.: There was a New Yorker article about olive oil fraud that just came out in book form, and the author told me that he had wanted to write about Italian wine fraud, but his life was threatened. Any thoughts?
BW: Thank God I didn’t encounter anything like that, but the particular story I was writing was largely a work of excavation. The crimes had taken place 20 years earlier as opposed to writing about an ongoing racket involving organized crime. The only person I was potentially worried about was Rodenstock, and I had a few moments of fear about him, but it was just paranoia.
W.E.: Are there many convicted wine forgers?
BW: Over the years, there have been people, but not in terms of large-scale frauds. A guy named Louis A. Feliciano had wallpaper made with the Andy Warhol Mouton label, then he cut it up and made it into wine bottle labels. He was arrested in New York. I believe there are some people in Bordeaux who were convicted, a North African guy. I think [one of the reasons why few people have been convicted] is that it’s a difficult crime to prove. With these older wines, one of the tricky things is that you can radio date things precisely back to 1950, but pre-1950, there’s a 200-year margin of error. So, if someone puts 1949 wine in a bottle, it could be 1949 wine or 1749 wine, and no one can really pin it down. So there’s a lot of room for a con man to work in there.
Another thing that I find interesting is the sheer range of different types of wine fraud. There’s someone like Rodenstock, who’s trying to pass off some nontrophy wine as trophy wine, but then you have your Bordeaux producers who might want to pass off declassified grapes. There are definitely degrees of fakery. There’ve been people in France who have gotten in trouble for passing off stuff as appellation that was not appellation. A Burgundy shipper called Bernard Rivelais bottled inferior wine in magnum and double-magnum bottles and called them appellation Burgundy in 2001, and he was convicted.
W.E.: Has anyone stepped forward as a leading wine detective, either a scientist or investigator, after the Lafite case?
BW: There’s the guy who works for [William] Koch, Jim Elroy. [Philippe Hubert], the guy in Bordeaux who ended up being a radio-dating expert for wines...had gotten press for successfully dating his bottles, using his method. There are people, often former auctioneers, who are hired by wealthy people to inventory their cellars and look for fakes. David Molyneux-Berry, former head of Sotheby’s, is one, another is William Edgerton, [wine appraiser] of Edgerton Wine Appraisals. The collector, Russell Frye, started a Web site, wineauthentication.com. Frye, with Koch, filed the lawsuit against Rodenstock. Frye set up this Web site that has become a focal point for investigation.
W.E.: Do you ever get recognized by sommeliers at bars and restaurants?
BW: Not frequently, but it has happened. Usually when they’re ringing me up and see my name on the credit card.
W.E.: Does your renown make you shy about ordering older wines?
BW: Ha! If only I had the means to be able to order older wines in restaurants.
W.E.: What wines do you drink at home?
BW: In general, I’m an Old World drinker; French in particular, Loire especially. And I’m a big believer in the Mike Steinberger method of winnowing wine choices by importer. Where I live in Brooklyn, there are a number of nearby wine stores that carry wines brought in by Kermit Lynch, Louis Dressner, Michael Skurnik and Jenny & Francois, and I’m usually happy with their selections.
W.E.: If you suddenly had a pile of disposable income to invest in wine, which bottles might you look to acquire to build a collection?
BW: I would spend it on building a cellar with some depth and breadth, not on any stand-out status bottles. Some third and fourth-tier classified Bordeaux, maybe, and younger wines from the Loire.