Book Excerpt: Vintage Crime – A Short History of Wine Fraud


In her new book Vintage Crime – A Short History of Wine Fraud, Rebecca Gibb MW tells the history of wine through some of the most well-known cases of fraud, in addition to less well-documented incidents that intrigued Rebecca personally.

Having passed the notorious Master of Wine tasting exams in 2012, there was just the dissertation to complete before acquiring the elusive MW letters. But one proposal after another was rejected. In need of inspiration, Don and Petie Kladstrup’s Champagne book How the World's Most Glamorous Wine Triumphed Over War and Hard Times came to the rescue. If you have not read it, the book is a colorful wine history and includes a snappy chapter on the 1911 Champagne riots. It seemed like a juicier topic than a Beaujolais, and it emerged that there was a scarcity of information about it, particularly in English.

Three years, a hefty mortgage and one sizeable baby later, Rebecca had also become an expert on the reasons behind the Champagne riots and the world’s 384th Master of Wine. Fraud was one of the major causes of the protests, and it stirred an interest in the dark side of the wine world that has culminated in this book.

This is not a history of every wine fraud that has taken place—there are far too many to count—but each of the instances chosen takes place within a seminal period of change for the world of wine, allowing us to better understand that period of social and cultural history. Some chapters do not rest on a single instance of fraud but on general wheeling and dealing across an extended period (such as imperial Rome), while a chapter devoted to lead in wine traces its use from the 1600s to modern times.

The book covers a broad timespan from the Roman Empire via England, France, Germany, Austria, Italy, and more to a twenty-first-century courthouse in New York City. This well-researched yet accessible romp through the history of wine questions why we drink wine, the multifaceted reasons for wine fraud throughout the ages and, ultimately, if the game is up.

This excerpt from Vintage Crime – A Short History of Wine Fraud will give readers a good idea of the book.

Indiana Jones and the Glass Crusade

It was all over in ninety-nine seconds.

Kip Forbes, the son of US magazine magnate Malcolm Forbes, had dropped a record-breaking £105,000 ($155,295) on a single bottle of wine. And it had taken less than two minutes. Sent to do his millionaire father’s bidding, the younger Forbes wasn’t leaving the packed Christie’s auction room without his prize—a bottle of Lafitte 1787 bearing the initials Th.J., a bottle the vendor claimed was once the property of Thomas Jefferson, the third president of the United States. Within hours of the gavel slamming down on December 5, 1985, the bottle engraved with Jefferson’s initials was comfortably installed in its own seat on a private jet, leaving behind the gray skies of London for a new home on New York’s glitzy Fifth Avenue.

Despite the breakneck pace of the sale, the whiffs of skepticism concerning the authenticity of the bottle sold on that December day caused a life-long hangover for its vendor, former pop-band manager Hardy Rodenstock, and the Christie’s auctioneer, Lancashire-born J. Michael Broadbent. The pair were ensnared in years of speculation and numerous court cases and became the leading characters in Benjamin Wallace’s book The Billionaire’s Vinegar, whose long-awaited screen adaptation has been linked to various Hollywood A-listers, including Matthew McConaughey.

It was the wine discovery of the century: a stash of bottles in a cellar in the Marais district of Paris. While the French capital’s finest wine cellars, including 80,000 bottles from the historic restaurant La Tour d’Argent, had been pillaged by German soldiers during World War II, these pre-Revolution bottles had remained untouched by friend and foe alike until an elderly gentleman stumbled across the bricked-up cellar. Covered in the thick dust of centuries of repose, a quick wipe revealed the dozen or so bottles belonged to the who’s who of Bordeaux: Lafitte, now known as Lafite Rothschild or simply Lafite; Yquem; Margaux; and Mouton Rothschild, then known as Brane Mouton. Not only that, they dated from the 1780s. And the bottles were engraved with the initials Th.J. It was an unbelievable find. Who did the Frenchman call? How about “the most envied wine tracker in the world,” Hardy Rodenstock? The former band manager turned rare wine collector and dealer, whose real name was Meinhard Görke, raced to Paris from Munich to inspect this cache. He took possession of the bottles on the spot and drove away with a piece of history. Or at least that was Rodenstock’s story. It was an account decidedly scant on detail, including the all-important location of the stash, information that went with him to his grave.

Vintage Crime – A Short History of Wine Fraud is published by UC Press. We are pleased to offer all our readers a 30% discount on the purchase price. You can redeem this offer by using the promo code UCPSAVE30. If you are in the UK, please contact the distributor, Wiley, directly and mention the promo code to receive the discount (Phone: +44 (0) 1243 843291; For readers in the US, you can apply at checkout on the UC Press website.

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