With the investment virtues of Penfolds Grange even being touted by your Woolworths supermarkets as a new vintage is released a cautionary tale about the strange world of wine investment is perhaps appropriate.

Having paid £105,000 in 1985 for what the auctioneers described as a bottle of 1787 Lafite, the publishing magnate Malcolm Forbes put his prized new possession in a glass case equipped with halogen spotlights so people could see it in all its glory. It was the world’s most expensive wine, not just because of its age and first growth status, but because of its provenance.

This was a bottle miraculously discovered after two centuries walled up in a Parisian cellar where Thomas Jefferson himself had stored it. “Th. J.” was etched on the bottle and no less an authority than Michael Broadbent, Master of Wine, was vouching for its authenticity.

And there on its pedestal the wine sat with the cork drying out until it dropped into the bottle. “I wish”, commented the billionaire, “Jefferson had bloody drunk the thing.”

Fellow American rich men, William Koch a chemical engineer of California, and Russell Frye, a Massachusetts software entrepreneur, are not proving quite so philosophical about other bottles with the Th. J. monogram that they paid fortunes for. Their concern is not that a little re-corking might be necessary to preserve their old vintages but evidence that the wine is not really old at all.

Mr. Koch filed suit in federal court in New York last September against a German collector and dealer, Hardy Rodenstock, who supplied the Jefferson bottles and other rare vintages to auction houses and merchants. Mr. Koch, the Wall Street Journal reported, alleges that the former pop-music promoter defrauded him and engaged in a scheme to deceive wine buyers and reviewers around the world. Mr Frye has filed suit in federal court in San Francisco against a California distributor that sold him Mr. Rodenstock’s wines.

A writer and lecturer on Jefferson’s passion for wines, James Gabler, was instrumental in Messrs Koch and Frye taking action. Mr Gabler whose book An Evening with Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson was published this year by Bacchus Press, responded on a website in February 2006 to a request for information about the authenticity of the Jefferson wines. He wrote:

There are a number of compelling reasons why the 1787 Lafite wine bottle engraved with the initials “Th.J.” and sold at auction by Christie’s in London on December 5, 1985 for $156,450, amongst a cache of bottles found by Hardy Rodenstock “behind a bricked up wall in Paris,” was not, in my opinion, ever owned or possessed by Thomas Jefferson. According to the Christie’s catalog the cache of bottles included “a bottle of 1787 Chateau d’Yquem … From the same bricked up paris cellar Mr. Rodenstock also acquired three bottles of 1787 Branne Mouton, (now Mouton Rothschild), Chateau Margau [sic],the Lafite and another bottle of Yquem.”

First, an examination of Jefferson’s records reveals that he never owned or ordered any Bordeaux wines of the 1787 vintage, and those records include his letters, his log of records written and received, whole parcels of his miscellaneous accounts, including the internal customs documents accompanying his wine shippments from Bordeaux to Paris, and, most importantly his daily financial memorandum books recording all his receipts and expenditures, in which Jefferson put so much faith that he said he would vouch in their accuracy and completeness ‘on the bed of death.’

Second, Jefferson kept an account of all expenses relating to his purchases of wines, and there are no references in Jefferson’s records of having purchased Bordeaux wines engraved with his initials.

Third, Jefferson DID NOT arrange “for his agent in Bordeaux to supply bottles engraved for identification, with vintage, name of chateau and his initials” as Michael Broadbent contends in his recent book. On the contrary, in his Bordeaux wine order of September 1790 for himself and President George Washington he instructed the vineyard owners to mark the outside packages G.W. and T.J. and told his Bordeaux agent, Joseph Fenwick, that Fenwick would receive the wines from the vineyards “ready packed.” For Fenwick to have had the bottles engraved would have required the removal of bottles from their cases so each bottle could be engraved, an expensive undertaking not accounted for in Jefferson’s records.

Jefferson’s records are totally silent on the wine of “Branne Mouton,” and there is only one mention of “Mouton” and that is in reference to a third catagory of wines. He never ordered Mouton. The wine Jefferson esteemed after the four first growths was Madame de Rozan’s wine, now Rozan-Segla.

Also, the provenance of everything is vital to its authenticity, and the fact that Mr. Rodenstock has refused to tell how and where he obtained the bottles, beyond saying that they were found in a “bricked-up Paris cellar,” is troubling. If we knew where Mr. Rodenstock had obtained the bottles, their idenity could be established, and any possible connection to Jefferson, traced. Rodenstock’s refusal to reveal how and where he got the bottles obscures that simple solution.

A more detailed account of the reasons why the “Th.J” bottles were not owned by Jefferson can be found in An Evening with Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson: Dinner, Wine, and Conversation at pages 124-131 and 313-317.

I have not seen any comment by Mr Broadbent MW, now aged 79 but still a consultant to Christies, on the controversy. “Looking back, more questions could have been asked,” Richard Brierley, who is head of Christie’s U.S. wine sales but wasn’t involved in the 1985 auction told the Wall Street Journal. At the time, Mr. Broadbent, the renowned wine author and Christie’s board member, had vouched for the bottles and backed Mr. Rodenstock. “When more Jefferson bottles surfaced later, that cast a cloud on them,” Mr. Brierley said.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey