Friday, 20 May 2011

The Emperor's new bottles

I have just finished reading a book I received as a birthday present that's rather outside my usual span of reading. Okay, there were a couple of brief mentions of science, but the topic here was wine, and specifically the selling of very old wine.

Like many people, I enjoy a glass of wine with a meal, though I usually go for the house plonk. (To be honest I often prefer a good pint of beer, but it's rare that you can get one of these in restaurants.) However I have bought nicer wine for home consumption and special occasions. We've occasionally partaken of the likes of Chateau Beychevelle or Chateau Talbot, or the second wines of some the top names like Margaux and Latour. And there is no doubt they taste a bit different from the ordinary stuff - more complex for sure.

However this book concerns wine collectors and their quest for bottles dating back as far as the 18th century. When I first heard of wine collectors, I assumed they were like stamp collectors. I don't think many stamp collectors will take their most precious mint stamp and use it on an envelope, and I thought the same applied to wine collectors. But no, a lot of them, after paying maybe $10,000 or $50,000 or in extreme cases over $100,000 for a bottle tend to open the bottle and drink it.

At this point they will sometimes come up with much praise for the wine. It's always praise 'considering', but even so the experts can get quite ecstatic, though as the book points out there is fairly good evidence they are likely to be fooling themselves.

However the main thread of this fascinating book is not the tasting self-deception of wine enthusiasts, it's some downright dirty dealings. Over the years various ancient bottles turned up with the initials Th. J. engraved on them. It was known that Thomas Jefferson had been a wine enthusiast and lived in Paris at roughly the right time, so they were sold as being his bottles, even though the Jefferson experts were doubtful that this incredibly detailed record keeper would omit to mention these specific purchases.

It was these 'Jefferson' bottles that sold for the biggest cash values. But we become increasingly aware that they may well be fakes. After all, even more than art, appreciation of the difference between a good wine and a great one, or a real bottle and a fake one, is subjective.

All in all an excellent read in a non-fiction-as-narrative style. Like some wines, the ending is perhaps a slight let-down, but the journey is well worth it. Take a look at or

1 comment:

  1. What an interesting topic! I do find wine a very interesting substance - although I do think some of these tasters go a bit over the top with their cherries and roughly-turned-cut-grass similes. All it ever tastes like to me is... wine.