This is another very fun rejection story. For a decade I read the French wine and food magazines every month. I also had a taste for great stories of fraud and hoaxes, and I had read in the 1980s the fabulous story of the Hitler Diaries hoax, and a few other such books – like the Hermit of Peking – and in December 1987 a story appeared in the Revue du Vin de France raising the possibility that some famous bottles of 200-year-old wine that purportedly belonged to Thomas Jefferson were in fact a hoax.
I wrote a story based on the Revue du Vin de France story, and I submitted it to an editor. It was prompty turned down like all of my stories as I was no expert in the area and I didn’t even know how to write journalism. If I wanted to do a story about this silly tale, the least I should do is interview a few experts, do some real reporting. So I accepted to do so, and as you will see below, I interviewed three of the top wine experts in the world, including one of the men involved in the sale of the Jefferson wine, as well as the writer of the Revue du Vin de France story, who was also an expert in wine. I was also told to drop the whole reference to the Hitler Diaries affair.
The result is the third draft of the story that follows on the second draft below (I did not submit the first draft and cannot find it). Below is the draft of the story I submitted to the editor, followed by the draft of the story the editor asked me to write, trying to make light of the whole scandal, a little bit of a tempest in a tea cup approach. In the end the newspaper refused to publish the story and I dropped it after weeks of work. My imagination was fired up enormously, however, by the idea of some of the characters in the tale and the idea of a hoax involving a 200 year old wine involving a great historical figure. So I wrote a novel inspired by the story, but in no way tying the novel to any of the real-life events.
That novel would be called Bacchanalia, and it landed me my first literary agent, then my second, then my third and maybe even my fourth. But none of them managed to sell the book. I did eventually write a short story based on the lead character, and the story was nominated for a prize by the Crime Writers of Canada in 1997.
Preparing to put this story up here in my rejected stories area on my blog, I did a little research on the Internet and in a newspaper database to check out the dates, and to my surprise I discovered that although mine would have been the first story in the English-language press writing all about the potential of the Jefferson bottles as a hoax, the story had poked its head up numerous times and become a major scandal – although not in the way you might expect.
The man who was a the source of “finding” the Jefferson bottles, Hardy Rodenstock, was found by a German court in 1992 to have “‘knowingly offered adulterated wine’ for sale,” according to several sources including a Rodenstock page on Facebook. When the case was appealed it was settled out of court. The Jefferson wine story again cropped up in the 2000 when another Rodenstock client became suspicious and a scientific investigation concluded that the initials on the bottles had been done by an electric engraving device, which would not have existed in the 1700s. The Wall Street Journal ran a large article in 2006 outlining the whole haox story, as have many other major publications since then. A whole book had been written about the Jefferson bottles affair, called Billionaire’s Vinegar by Benjamin Wallace, and published by Random House…and then removed from the shelves after Michael Broadbent successfully sued for libel in the UK, claiming that he had been accused of being part of perpetrating a hoax, which you can see by both versions of my articles below was never suspected on my part or by anyone else involved at the time – and which I have seen Wallace denying he suspected as well.
But it was interesting for me to discover that my article would have been well over a decade precocious in the English-language press had it been published. Then again, there is a good possibility that I would never have written Bacchanalia! Here is the draft of the story I submitted before being asked to re-write it with my own interviews with experts:PARIS It could turn out to be the biggest hoax of its kind.
The Guinness Book of World’s Records calls it the world’s most expensive wine. “Its price,” says Guinness, “was affected insofar as the bottle was initialled by Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826), 3rd President of the United States.”
But an article in the December issue of the Revue du Vin de France asks: will Thomas Jefferson’s Wine go the way of the “Hitler Diaries”?
Exactly two years ago this month a bottle of wine identified as a 1787 Chateau Lafite broke all records for a wine auction, selling at Christies in London for 105,000 pounds ($156,450). It was bought by American Malcolm Forbes, owner of Forbes magazine. The bottle bore the inscribed letters Th.J.–Thomas Jefferson.
Later, in 1986 another Jefferson bottle was sold at a record price. It was a bottle of 1784 Chateau d’Yquem, one of the ex-President’s favourite wines, drawing $56,000. In June this year at a bordeaux wine festival yet another bottle of Jefferson’s initialled wine sold for a record price: 180,000 francs ($29,500) for a half bottle of 1784 Chateau Margaux.
The bottles were part of a cache of 13 that were reported to have been found behind a cellar wall in an old house in Paris in 1985 and to have fallen into the hands of a wealthy wine collector by the name of Hardy Rodenstock.
Rodenstock, a West German music publisher, went to the world’s number one specialist in wine auctions, Michael Broadbent of Christie’s, and in October of 1985 a bottle of 1784 Yquem was tasted by him at Wiesbaden and judged remarkable.
(Two other bottles have been opened and tasted by Rodenstock, Broadbent, and the proprietors of Yquem and Mouton-Rothschild, Alexandre de Lur-Saluces and Philippe de Rothschild respectively. The wines were considered excellent by all parties.)
In his article in the sixty-year-old magazine of the French wine trade, Jean-Francois Bazin, a journalist and author of books on the wines of Burgundy and California, sounds the alarm: “There is no foundation for the belief that these wines really belonged to Thomas Jefferson.”
“When a bottle that is attributed to having been the property of an historical figure is sold for over a million francs, it’s normal to want to know where it came from,” he writes.
Rodenstock has never revealed the exact address and date at which the wine was discovered.
Bazin writes, “Why is he jealously guarding secret such seemingly secondary information? A knowledge of the building, its past, and the history of its occupants could after all explain the existence of the bottles.”
And he complains that “The principal ‘critic’ in the affair, Michael Broadbent, has been an active participant in the sale of the wine. Everything that we know about the bottles comes from him.”
Bazin adds that Broadbent’s competence as a wine expert is not in question, but that the story might be easier to swallow if there was a more objective critic involved. Broadbent has been the head of Christie’s wine department since 1966. He restarted the operation after it had been closed down during the Second World War. He has also written books on wine and served as president of the International Wine and Food Society.
Bazin points out what has been known from the beginning: Thomas Jefferson did not sign his personal property with the initials Th.J. but rather TI. The I was a contemporay form of J. This is how the president, who was ambassador to France from 1785-1789, ordered from Philadelphia in 1790 some bottles of “Yquem” for himself and George Washington. He asked that Washington’s bottles be identified G.W. and his own TI. It is unclear as to where this was to be written, on the bottle or on the case. In those days wine bottles did not bear paper labels, and the practice of inscribing in the manner of the Jefferson bottles was not common.
Since it was not at any chateaux that the bottles were inscribed with the complete information of what kind of wine it was, what chateau, and who the owner was, Bazin says it is all the more odd that the same information should be discovered in the same cache on wines from four different chateaux. Bazin wonders who could have done it at the time, and why.
But he suspects that the bottles are a hoax because the initials Th.J. may not be mistaken for those of another owner of the wine since the handwriting is exactly that of Thomas Jefferson. “It’s too perfect,” he writes.
Bazin, a Burgundian, also wonders at the coincidence of the bottles being the very wine that draws the most money at auctions today. Three of the bottles are from Chateau Brane-Mouton, what became today’s Chateau Mouton-Rothschild. While records remain of Jefferson’s having ordered and received 1784 Margaux and ordered Lafite which was unavailable, no record exists of his having ever ordered or bought any Brane-Mouton. And the records of this period are called complete by staff at the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Foundation in Monticello, Virginia. Why, asks Bazin, were there no bottles of Burgundy? A wine that we know Jefferson ordered, and liked.
While the parallel to the hoax of the Hitler Diaries is only alluded to in the Vin de France article (and used as the headline), it could turn out to be very close. In the Hitler Diaries affair of the early 1980’s the reputation of a highly respected expert in the field of Hitler studies was threatened by the eventual revelation that the diaries were fakes. The diaries were bought by a collector of Nazi memorabilia, Gerd Heidemann, a journalist with a German magazine. Heidemann bought the forgeries from the man who made them, who claimed to have received them from someone in East Germany whose life would be threatened if his name was revealed. Heidemann claims this is why he witheld the name of his supplier until it became obvious that the diaries were fakes. It took more than a single testing to reveal them as such.
In the Jefferson wine case, Rodenstock claims to have had the wine and cork of one of the bottles tested in a laboratory in West Germany and the results were that the wine was from between 1780 and 1800. But Bazin points out that the results of these tests were not published. Broadbent said that Christie’s confirmed that the wine bottles and corks were original 18th century.
In the Hitler Diary case, the expert, Lord Dacre, the former Hugh Trevor-Roper, claimed the diaries to be authentic after having been told they had been tested. The test had turned out to be simply a hand-writing analysis. When a scientific analysis of the paper, binding, and ink and glue was made, the diaries were revealed to be fakes.
In that case both the collector and the expert were or claimed to have been duped by a third party, the supplier of the diaries. Perhaps both Rodenstock and Broadbent ought, for their own good, to reveal who the third party was in the case of the Jefferson wine. Two years after the discovery this does not seem much to ask.
And as Bazin concludes, “If I were Christie’s, I’d ask myself a few questions–after the accounts have been balanced and everything cooled down–before going on to sell the next bottle, since there must be at least half a dozen still left.”
Here is the Hoax story Third Draft, re-written, dropping Hitler diaries references and containing quotes from wine experts – inlcuding Broadbent – after my interviews:
Something’s brewing in the international wine world, and it isn’t the wine. It’s a debate about the authenticity of the claim that certain 18th century bottles of Bordeaux belonged to Thomas Jefferson. Three of the bottles have won record prices at auctions around the world over the past two years.
An article in the current issue of the Revue du Vin de France by Jean-Francois Bazin, a journalist and author of books on the wines of Burgundy and California, says that there is “no foundation for the belief that the wine belonged to Thomas Jefferson.”
While Bazin questions the validity of the evidence of the engraved initials Th.J. on the bottles, his main complaints are that “the principal ‘critic’ in the affair” is also the man conducting the record-breaking auctions, and that the exact address where the bottles were found is being kept a secret.
The bottles were part of a cache of 13 that were reportedly found behind a cellar wall in an old house in Paris in 1985 and fell into the hands of the wealthy West German wine collector Hardy Rodenstock. The main clue to the ownership of the bottles is the engraving on them of the initials Th.J.
The auctions were conducted by Michael Broadbent, the Christie’s auction house wine expert since 1966. Bazin laments that Broadbent is also the man from whom “everything that we know about the wine comes.”
Bazin, who holds a Doctorate in Law and works as a deputy mayor of the city of Dijon in addition to his work as a journalist, said recently over the telepone, “No wine expert can say whether those are Jefferson’s bottles. What is needed is a historian of the city of Paris. If we knew the address where the bottles were found we could find out who lived in the house and if they might have been likely to have had such bottles. The city of Paris has such historians and vast records of the houses.”
Steven Spurrier, the Paris and London wine merchant who also runs L’Acadamie du Vin, a Paris wine school with branches in London and New York, has confidence in Broadbent’s expertise, but admitted, “There is really no proof on either side. It is a little bit odd. Just when you think you’ve seen the last of these old bottles, another one crops up again.”
He said he thought “Rodenstock should be obliged to tell the public where it comes from” when so much money is being paid for a bottle of wine. The first of the bottles auctioned, a 1787 Chateau Lafite, fetched 105,000 pounds ($155,000) in December 1985.
Hugh Johnson, a writer and world authority on wine, reached at his country home said, “I know Michael Broadbent and he is a man of complete integrity and I trust whatever he decides to do.”
“I have never seen nor tasted the wine,” he added. “But I hear it is sublimely good. And that is the most peculiar thing about it. I wish I’d tasted it! It is the wine after all that is the most important matter in the affair.”
Michael Broadbent calls Bazin’s article in the sixty-year-old magazine of the French wine trade “most misleading.”
Contacted recently at Christie’s, he said, “I’m getting a little bit bored of people dragging this thing up and making statements that are simply not true, or not supported.”
Bazin believes that the bottles are a hoax mainly because the initials Th.J. do not represent the way in which Jefferson signed his personal objects. But that they may not be mistaken for anyone else’s intitials because the handwriting is the same as Thomas Jefferson’s. Jefferson, who was U.S. ambassador to France from 1785-1789 and a known wine connoisseur, signed his personal objects TI, the I being a contemporary form of J.
“Yes,” said Broadbent, “but Jefferson signed his business letters and documents Th:Jefferson.
“We have a letter in which Jefferson ordered wine from his French wine agent in 1791 and asked that the wine be labelled. As bottles were not labelled then as they are today, with paper labels, we may assume that the agent or his personal secretary from his days in France decided that because Jefferson was such a fuss-pot–so finicky–that the most effective way to identify the bottles was to engrave in Jefferson’s hand-writing the exact way he would have done it himself. Copying Jefferson’s signature from the letter requesting the bottles, his formal signature.
“But the initials on the bottle have only one dot, because it is not a colon but a flourish that Jefferson put between his first and last names on his business documents.”
When asked if Rodenstock had told him the address where the bottles were found, Broadbent said, “No. This is the one thing that frankly upsets me about Rodenstock. He hasn’t told me the address.”
But he added that Rodenstock, whom he knew and trusted as a wine collector before the appearance of the Jefferson bottles, “had no idea who Th.J was” until he took one of the bottles, a 1784 Chateau d’Yquem to the taste with the proprietor of the chateau, Count Alexandre de Lur-Saluces.
Lur-Saluces, said Broadbent, saw the initials and suggested they check the records of the chateau’s buyers, and that is how Rodenstock learned that the wines belonged to Thomas Jefferson.
Hugh Johnson said, “It is a peculiar game Rodenstock is playing not to reveal where it comes from,” but, he added, “I’m very happy to let it remain a mystery.”
Bazin is not.
“Never has such a discovery of old wine bottles been made in Paris,” he said. “So why now do we all of a sudden–apparently–discover a whole cache of them, and all bottles that sell for the very highest prices at today’s auctions?”
The bottles were identified as Chateaux Lafite, Yquem, Margaux, and Brane-Mouton–today’s Mouton-Rothschild.
“And why,” Bazin said, “do they suddenly appear at the 200th anniversary of Jefferson’s stay in France?” Bazin was recently involved in putting up a plaque in Burgundy commemorating Jefferson’s visit to the region.
“When a bottle that is attributed to having been the property of a historical figure is sold for over a million francs, it’s normal to want to know where it came from,” Bazin wrote.
But Spurrier questions Bazin’s expertise in the affair.
“Bazin,” he said, “calls Michael Broadbent ‘Mike’ at one point in his article. Michael Broadbent has never been called ‘Mike’ in his life! Perhaps Broadbent should tell Bazin that if he can’t even get right the appellation of a living person he should not be fooling with the appellation of a dead wine.”