I just read an article in the New Yorker magazine, dated September 3, 2007, about the famous Thomas Jefferson bottles and American tycoon Bill Koch’s million-dollar battle to find out if they are authentic or not. And I have to wonder if he, or anyone else concerned about these wines, ever read an article I wrote in the Jan 1-31, 1986, issue of Wine Spectator.
In that issue, I wrote about the sale of an ancient, hand-blown bottle of 1787 Lafite engraved with the letters “Th. J.” to Christopher Forbes for $156,450 at a Christie’s auction in London. It was the highest price ever paid for a single bottle, and the record still stands. Forbes wanted the wine for his family’s museum of presidential memorabilia.
I remember telephoning his father, the late Malcolm Forbes, after the sale, and he was speechless when he heard the price his son had paid for the bottle. “I wish Jefferson had drunk the damn bottle,” he told me.
The article about the sale was accompanied by a small story headlined “Historical Doubt.” The first paragraph reads:
“An authority on Jefferson memorabilia doubts that the ballyhooed bottle of 1787 Lafite had any connection with the American statesman. But it’s reasonably certain that the bottle dates from the time when Jefferson ordered wines from the estate in Bordeaux.”
So from the beginning, there’s been skepticism about whether these bottles actually belonged to Jefferson. But that didn’t stop people from buying the wines.
Their history is shrouded in mystery. The cache, including 18th century bottles of Lafite, Mouton and Yquem, was supposedly discovered in a cellar in Paris, but the exact location has never been revealed. (Jefferson lived in Paris from 1784 to 1789.)
Hardy Rodenstock, a German collector and merchant, acquired the wines, and consigned the 1787 Lafite to Christie’s. Over the next two decades, about a dozen bottles traded in auctions and through private vendors. Apparently, Koch bought four of them, paying about half a million dollars.
I have always been a skeptic, too. It was clear the bottles were old, and even Eric de Rothschild said he believed they were truly 18th century Lafites.
But I remember what Cinder Goodwin, a research associate for the foundation that maintains Jefferson’s Monticello estate in Charlotesville, Va., told me back in 1986.
“When asked do we think it’s Jefferson’s bottle, we have to say we have doubts,” she said, as I wrote in my article. “They’ve made a sort of leap of faith in attributing it to Jefferson.”
When it comes to these “Jefferson” bottles, it seems a lot of people have made leaps of faith over the years…