Wine. I have loved wine for a long time. Not just any cheap bottle of red, but really nice wine. Nothing can compare to a proper bottle of high quality wine. I struggle a bit with becoming friends with wines from the New World but I guess it will come with time. When they start producing wines that can be kept in the cave for longer than five years I will start buying them. Maybe.
I will always remember the day I first tasted a wine that opened doors to a second universe. In fact, there are two moments a couple of years apart. The first was when I was working as a waiter for a big state dinner around year 2000. There was a Spanish delegation and therefore the theme for the wine was, predictably, Spain. The highlight was a red wine from the producer Miguel Torres bottled 1973. I can’t remember much (nothing to do with heavy drinking. I promise) about it, but what I remember is the sensation. Never had I tasted a wine so perfectly balanced, so mature and so amazingly well composed. That a human could put something like that together was for me up until then unknown. That nature could, with perhaps a little help, produce what’s needed to manufacture something like that was a revelation. I thought I’d never experience anything like it ever again. Until I went to France to work a couple of years later. A boiling day in late July, me and two friends went for a drive to Chateauneuf-du-Pape. We parked at the end of a not very long street which runs through the little village that gathers by the foot of the hill where the old Papal Palace still looks out over the Rhône Valley. Or at least a part of a high wall still looks out over the valley. Not much remains of the old palace. This was the first time I ever went for a proper tasting tour of a famous wine making district, and what a place to start. I could not believe my palate.
The hours flew past and when we finally reached the end of a rather jolly day we realized that the cave that was closed when we had arrived, situated just by the car park was now open. We climbed down rather treacherous steps into a cool, slightly damp basement that seemed to spread for miles. We were immediately jumped by two rather flamboyant but very friendly gentlemen who helped guiding us through the forest of vintages stored. And what wines. Had I only been richer at the time… I bought two measly bottles of one of the best wines I had ever tasted. They were bottled 2000 (I couldn’t afford any older vintages) and I drank them the other year. What bliss! Had I not been religious before I tasted them, I would immediately have turned to a higher power to say praise. I can still taste the cherry, the warm sun and the dark colours in those bottles.
Having experienced some of my most complete culinary moments with wines like that it is with a heavy heart I follow the big scandal in the wine world at the moment. Or rather the world of wine collectors. I can’t say that I collect myself. I buy to drink in five, ten, maybe twenty years time. I don’t buy to sell later in life. We haven’t, in my opinion, been given enough time on this earth for that kind of squirrelish behaviour. However, those collectors who have chosen to collect wine are now shivering in the realization that some of their most valued (no pun intended) possessions might be fake. One of the more famous dealers and handlers of rare wine, Hardy Rodenstock, will hopefully be facing justice in the same court as dear old Bernie Madoff. Both Rodenstock and the world leading auction house Christie’s have been sued in New York by a furious billionaire. He, the billionaire William Koch, bought four bottles of wine reputedly from the Thomas Jefferson household for $500.000. And it isn’t any Thomas Jefferson. It was said to be bottles from the house in Paris where the president-to-be had had them hidden behind brick and mortar since around 1790. The bottles had 1787 engraved on them and since Jefferson was a famous wine collector it sounded possible. Until 2005 when curators at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts let experts from the Monticello Foundation, the absolute authority on Thomas Jefferson, have a look at the bottles and let Mr. Koch know that they doubted that they really were what they wanted you to believe. They found them to, most likely, be a fraud. Koch went furious and had ex-agents from FBI, Scotland Yard and MI-5 investigate the whole situation and they found that neither was Hardy Rodenstock who he said he was (his real name is Meinhard Görke, he was born in Poland and had been working as a music producer for touring dance groups) but they also found that the engraving on the Jefferson bottles must have been made with 20th century tools. They found people who had helped Rodenstock (or is it Görke?) engrave old bottles and other craftsmen who had helped him print old wine labels, in particular the Petrus 1921-, 1928 and 1929 vintages but more importantly the expensive Mouton Rothschild 1929. After these revelations Koch had his entire cave looked through and there experts found another 150 bottles of fake vintages from some of the most famous French chateaux.
This could never have reached collectors and the collectors market if it wasn’t for the help of the most important link in this puzzle: the auction houses. Since Christie’s were the ones selling the Jefferson bottles they have had a particularly hard time. And well deserved. Michael Broadbent is the person at Christie’s who is supposed to be the bad guy. Both him and Christie’s denies all allegations, as does Rodenstock, but it looks too incredible to be true. That one of the most important wine experts in the world, said to have made more than 90.000 notes during wine tasting over the years, would have been oblivious of what passed under his nose for years seems rather impossible I’d say. Koch is the one who pushes this case forward, and today it seems to be more because he wants people to know what is going on in the world of wine auctions with collectors being robbed when paying sometimes hundreds of thousands of dollars for wine basically made tomorrow. If Christie’s really sold eight magnum bottles of Chateau Lafleur 1947, regardless of the known fact that only five was ever produced, will be up to the court in New York to decide. But if that is the case, it is important that it is brought into the light.
Whatever the verdict in this sad case I hope people will carry on and calmly enjoy a good wine. Because, honestly, how many of us can afford paying thousands of dollars for a bottle of wine? And if we did, would we keep it hidden in a vault somewhere? I know I wouldn’t. I’d drink it and say cheers to another amazing experience in the realm of the art of food and wine.