The incredible story of Koch's Jefferson bottle of Laffite 1787

Part Three.

Text from The New Yorker, by Patrick Radden Keefe.


"Since much of the fine-wine business is conducted in off-the-books “gray market” exchanges between buyers and resellers with no direct link to the château, ascertaining who actually put a particular bottle of wine into circulation can be difficult. But Koch sent emissaries to the Chicago Wine Company and to Farr Vintners, and learned that all four bottles originally came from the person who had supplied the bottle auctioned at Christie’s, a flamboyant German wine collector named Hardy Rodenstock.
Rodenstock was a former music publisher who managed German pop acts in the seventies. He maintained residences in Munich, Bordeaux, and Monte Carlo, and was rumored to be part of the wealthy Rodenstock family, which manufactured high-end eyeglasses. He told people that he had started out as a professor, and intimated that he had made a fortune on the stock market.
Rodenstock became interested in wine in the seventies, and developed a passion for the sweet white wine of Château d’Yquem. He especially loved wines that predated the phylloxera epidemic of the late nineteenth century, when a grape-vine pest decimated Europe’s vineyards, forcing growers to replant with phylloxera-resistant rootstocks from North America. “In the pre-phylloxera wines of Yquem, you find more flavors, more caramel, more singularity, more power, more class,” he once told an interviewer. He boasted to Wine Spectator that he had tasted more vintages of old Yquem than the owner of the château had—and the château owner agreed.
Starting in 1980, Rodenstock began holding lavish annual wine tastings, weekend-long affairs attended by wine critics, retailers, and various German dignitaries and celebrities. He opened scores of old and rare wines, all provided at his own expense, and served in custom-made “Rodenstock” glasses that were supplied by his friend the glassmaker Georg Riedel. Impeccably dressed, wearing stylish Rodenstock eyeglasses and shirts with stiff white collars, he bantered with guests, exclaiming, over an especially fine bottle, “Ja, unglaublich! One hundred points!” He was punctilious about being on time, barring latecomers, and when serving older wines he banned spitting, which prompted some guests, alarmed at the number of bottles they would be sampling, to hide spittoons in their laps. “You don’t spit away history,” Rodenstock admonished them. “You drink it.”
Rodenstock made no secret of having discovered the Jefferson bottles; on the contrary, the record sale to Forbes had made him a celebrity in the wine world. In the spring of 1985, he would later explain, he received a phone call about an interesting discovery in Paris, where someone had stumbled upon some dusty old bottles, each inscribed with the letters “Th.J.” Rodenstock refused to reveal who had sold him the bottles, but apparently the seller did not realize the significance of the initials. “It was like the lottery,” Rodenstock said of the experience. “It was simply good luck.” He would not say how many bottles there were—in some accounts, it was “a dozen or so,” in others, as many as thirty. Nor would he disclose the address in Paris where they were discovered.
The Jefferson bottles were the first in a series of astonishing finds. Rodenstock became known as an intrepid hunter of the rarest wines. One collector, who was a friend of Rodenstock in the nineteen-eighties and nineties, told me that in 1989 he had arranged a horizontal tasting of bottles of 1929 wines from many different châteaux. The one bottle he had been unable to find was a 1929 Château Ausone. Several days before the tasting, he received a telephone call from Rodenstock. “I’m in Scotland,” Rodenstock announced. “I found a bottle of Ausone ’29!” Rodenstock travelled to Venezuela, where, according to press reports, he found a hundred cases of Bordeaux; in Russia, he uncovered “the tsar’s lost cache” of nineteenth-century wine. At Munich’s Hotel Königshof in 1998, he held a vertical tasting of a hundred and twenty-five years’ worth of Yquem, including two bottles from the Jefferson collection. “Amazingly, they didn’t taste over the hill or oxidized,” Wine Spectator’s correspondent remarked. “The 1784 tasted as if it were decades younger.”
Some members of the wine press avoided the events. The critic Robert Parker attended only one tasting; he told me that the extravagance of the affairs kept him away. Rating the selections would be of little use to most of his readers, he said, because they could hardly find, much less afford, such wines. And the policy against spitting, combined with Rodenstock’s tendency to withhold the most exciting offerings until the end of a tasting, could seriously impair any objective assessment of the wine. “He always seemed to serve the great stuff after you were primed pretty good,” Parker said of the one event he did attend, a 1995 tasting in Munich. “People were getting shitfaced.”
Even so, Parker was amazed at some of Rodenstock’s wines. “Out of this universe!” he wrote of a large-format magnum of Pétrus from 1921 that Rodenstock served. “This huge, unbelievably concentrated wine could have been mistaken for the 1950 or 1947.” In his journal, The Wine Advocate, Parker deemed the three-day tasting “the wine event of my lifetime.” “I quickly learned,” he wrote, “that when Hardy Rodenstock referred to a ’59 or a ’47, I needed to verify whether he was talking about the nineteenth or the twentieth century!”
Michael Broadbent regularly attended Rodenstock events. In his book “Vintage Wine: Fifty Years of Tasting Three Centuries of Wines,” Broadbent acknowledges that it was through Rodenstock’s “immense generosity” that he was able to taste many of the rarest entries. Much of his section on eighteenth-century wines consists of notes from Rodenstock tastings.
Bill Koch was never invited to one of these tastings, but he had heard of Rodenstock, and the two had met on one occasion, in 2000, when Christie’s held a tasting of Latour in its offices in New York. According to Koch, Rodenstock arrived late, and Koch approached him. “Hi, I’m Bill Koch,” he said. “I bought some wine from you.”
Rodenstock shook Koch’s hand. He looked uncomfortable, Koch thought. “So you’re the famous collector,” Rodenstock said, before hastily walking away. "

To be continued...