Thomas Jefferson is famous for many things: for being the principal author of the Declaration of Independence, the third President of the United States, an architect, a philosopher and fluent in six languages. He is also regarded as America’s first great wine connoisseur.
Jefferson served as Minister to France from 1785 until the outbreak of the French Revolution in 1787. It is this posting that became instrumental in one of the most notorious alleged wine frauds the world ever saw.
At 2:30pm on December the 5th, 1985, at Christie’s Auction House in London, bidding opened on a bottle of wine. Expectations were high. The bottle had been hand blown and was inscribed simply with a year; 1787, a name; Lafitte, and the initials Th J.
It was believed that this bottle of bordeaux was acquired by Thomas Jefferson, presumably during his posting to France, from Chateaux Lafitte.
This estate is now Chateaux Lafite Rotheschild, one of the four wine producing Chateaux of Bordeaux originally awarded first growth status in the 1855 classification. Wines from this estate demand exceptionally high prices. A case of 1982 might set you back around £30,000.
So, on that December afternoon Christopher Forbes, of the family that own Forbes Magazine, paid £105,000 for this single bottle. This is still the highest price a bottle of wine has ever fetched at auction.
Other bottles from the “Thomas Jefferson Collection” went on to be sold at auction. Unfortunately however, the authenticity of the bottles was questioned. One of the purchasers, US billionaire Bill Koch was told by the Jefferson estate that they had no record of those bottles ever being owned by Thomas Jefferson.
The subsequent investigation into alleged wine fraud became the subject of a book, “The Billionaire’s Vinegar: The Mystery of the World’s Most Expensive Bottle of Wine”, by Benjamin Wallace. This is now being adapted into a film starring Matthew McConaughey.
The authenticity of the wines of the Thomas Jefferson Collection is still in doubt and divides experts. Some claim the wines taste far younger than they should, and show no sign of appropriate oxidation. Others claim that the engraving on the bottle is more reminiscent of modern engraving tools than those available in the 18th Century.
This mystery rumbles on. Full story in The Guardian.
Image is “Thomas Jefferson” by Rembrandt Peale [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons