Lifestyle & Culture

Kitchen Detail: In Vino Veritas?

Book jacket for “The Billionaire’s Vinegar” and poster for the documentary “Sour Grapes.” / Image on the front from iStock.

By Nancy Pollard

After owning one of the best cooking stores in the US for 47 years—La Cuisine in Alexandria, Virginia—Nancy Pollard writes Kitchen Detail, a blog about food in all its aspects—recipes, film, books, travel, superior sources, and food-related issues.

The Affordable Disappears

A meal made perfect by a lovely bottle of wine in Heathrow Airport

A meal made perfect by a lovely bottle of wine in Heathrow Airport. / Photo by Nancy Pollard.

WHEN I WAS a child, my father had a few wood crates of French wine under his amateur carpenter’s workbench in our garage. He was very knowledgeable about wine and always let me have a taste at the dinner table. He knew how to pick a good affordable wine from France and later from Portugal, Chile, and California. He had been forced to attend Lycée Henri IV in Paris as an adolescent, and suffered enormous bullying by French students as the “American.” But out of this experience he became fluent in French, held an amazing proficiency in French history, developed a love of  mountain hiking, and fell in love with French Burgundy. The last part he bequeathed to my husband.

If you were interested in wine and did not have a lot to spend, in the 1960s and 1970s you could, for not too much money, discover the almost mystical world of French Burgundy, the greatest of which have been described as “an iron fist in a velvet glove.” Perhaps the most famous examples are the wines from Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, lovingly referred to by their fans as DRCs.  And even DRCs were in an earthly price range. Unfortunately they became unaffordable. Even Bordeaux, which are now VSOQ (Very Special Occasion Quaffs), were within reach. An off-year Château Yquem, you might get a sniff at some pricey wine tasting. There were many, many other once-accessible estates that are now simply collected by über-wealthy people who most likely won’t even drink them. When dining out, my father counseled my husband to first look for a reasonably priced Burgundy. Next, look for a Château-Neuf-du- Pape, and, failing that, to see if there were a bottle of Moulin-à-Vent on the  list.

In Vino Veritas

image of Hardy Rodenstock from from

An image of Hardy Rodenstock from

cover image of Billionaires VinegarAnd this is where a book and a documentary film come into play. The Billionaire’s Vinegar, written by Benjamin Wallace in 2008, is still  supposed to be made into a film with Matthew McConaughy. Regardless of its adaptation to the big screen, you will love this story of detection, in which crime seems to have paid the criminal very well. Wallace artfully takes you along the path of the 1787 bottle of Château Lafite Bordeaux (with the cryptic Th.J. inscribed on the bottle) that went for $150,000 at a Christie’s auction in 1985. There follows the engaging story of wine writers who were paid to pen knowledgeable wine reviews, collectors with more money than taste or sense, all following a Pied Piper of Wine, Hardy Rodenstock. On my part, there was a bit of Schadenfreude, when Bill Koch (yes, that Koch family) hires an investigator who uncovers an astonishing network of wine frauds. So much so, that this particular Koch (because he has the money to waste) builds a wing in his wine cellar/museum dedicated to all the fraudulent bottles he has purchased. Later, Bill Koch actually recovered several million dollars in damages. But Hardy Rodenstock melted away to the slopes of Kitzbuhël, Austria, and the beaches of Marbella, Spain, before passing away in June 2018. If you are interested in wine, Wallace’s portraits of such wine luminaries as Robert Parker, Michael Broadbent, and Jancis Robinson will make you much more secure in your own taste the next time you sample a vintage.

Ah, California

sour Grapes Official Poster

Rudy Kurniawan, the subject of “Sour Grapes.”

Rodenstock’s skulduggery was overshadowed by that of an under-30-year-old Indonesian, Rudy Kurniawan, the subject of the 2016 documentary film Sour Grapes. Kurniawan had an affinity for Burgundy, which he crafted into a mind-boggling get-rich scheme. This documentary has some eyebrow-raising comic moments, with wealthy self-professed wine connoisseurs in California discoursing pompously on the merits of the fraudulent wines they have purchased. And like Hardy Rodenstock, Kurniawan concocted wines and stories of their provenance that were accepted at face value by their ignorant purchasers. It was only when a winemaker in France decided to become a detective to restore honor to his house that the scheme gradually collapsed. Laurent Ponsot persevered and convinced the FBI to step in, and a landmark case in wine fraud was successfully prosecuted. Unlike Hardy Rodenstock tanning in Marbella, Rudy Kurniawan is serving hard time in New York.

Both The Billionaire’s Vinegar and Sour Grapes can be enjoyed with some of the modestly priced wines that are available to all of us from Italy, Spain, France, and several countries in North and South America. And whatever you pick, trust your own judgment. As a footnote to this post, if you have not read Judgment of Paris, pick up a copy and enjoy it along with the other two.

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