Text from The New Yorker. by Patrick Radden Keefe
"The most expensive bottle of wine ever sold at auction was offered at Christie’s in London, on December 5, 1985. The bottle was handblown dark-green glass and capped with a nubby seal of thick black wax. It had no label, but etched into the glass in a spindly hand was the year 1787, the word “Lafitte,” and the letters “Th.J.”
The bottle came from a collection of wine that had reportedly been discovered behind a bricked-up cellar wall in an old building in Paris. The wines bore the names of top vineyards—along with Lafitte (which is now spelled “Lafite”), there were bottles from Châteaux d’Yquem, Mouton, and Margaux—and those initials, “Th.J.” According to the catalogue, evidence suggested that the wine had belonged to Thomas Jefferson, and that the bottle at auction could “rightly be considered one of the world’s greatest rarities.” The level of the wine was “exceptionally high” for such an old bottle—just half an inch below the cork—and the color “remarkably deep for its age.” The wine’s value was listed as “inestimable.”
Before auctioning the wine, Michael Broadbent, the head of Christie’s wine department, consulted with the auction house’s glass experts, who confirmed that both the bottle and the engraving were in the eighteenth-century French style. Jefferson had served as America’s Minister to France between 1785 and the outbreak of the French Revolution, and had developed a fascination with French wine. Upon his return to America, he continued to order large quantities of Bordeaux for himself and for George Washington, and stipulated in one 1790 letter that their respective shipments should be marked with their initials. During his first term as President, Jefferson spent seventy-five hundred dollars—roughly a hundred and twenty thousand dollars in today’s currency—on wine, and he is generally regarded as America’s first great wine connoisseur. (He may also have been America’s first great wine bore. “There was, as usual, a dissertation upon wines,” John Quincy Adams noted in his diary after dining with Jefferson in 1807. “Not very edifying.”)
In addition to surveying the relevant historical material, Broadbent had sampled two other bottles from the collection. Some nineteenth-century vintages still taste delicious, provided they have been properly stored. But eighteenth-century wine is extremely rare, and it was not clear whether the Th.J. bottles would hold up. Broadbent is a Master of Wine, a professional certification for wine writers, dealers, and sommeliers, which connotes extensive experience with fine wine, and discriminating judgment. He pronounced a 1784 Th.J. Yquem “perfect in every sense: colour, bouquet, taste.”
At two-thirty that December afternoon, Broadbent opened the bidding, at ten thousand pounds. Less than two minutes later, his gavel fell. The winning bidder was Christopher Forbes, the son of Malcolm Forbes and a vice-president of the magazine Forbes. The final price was a hundred and five thousand pounds—about a hundred and fifty-seven thousand dollars. “It’s more fun than the opera glasses Lincoln was holding when he was shot,” Forbes declared, adding, “And we have those, too.” "
To be continued...