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The Mystery of "Jefferson's" Wines

Posted: Aug 28, 2007 5:51pm ET

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…

(For more information, see Marvin R. Shanken's blog and our news analysis.)

Thomas Bohrer
Hong Kong —  August 28, 2007 10:37pm ET
James, I dont know if you ever have read the book Jefferson and Wine? There are copies of the correspondence between Th.J and the Chateaus showing clearly that He ordered those wines.I understand that the Cellar Books at Chateau Yquem show the same. Does that mean all these facts might be fabricated?
Thomas Matthews
August 29, 2007 9:51am ET
"Thomas Jefferson on Wine" by John Hailman, published by the University Press of Mississippi (2006) is an excellent book, well-researched and written by someone who clearly knows and loves both Jefferson and Wine.In a long Appendix, Hailman considers the saga of the "Jefferson bottles." In the end, he writes, "It is always hard to prove a negative, i.e., to show that Jefferson did not order or possess the mystery bottles. It is even harder to prove that he did, however, when no documents specifically support it...it would be premature to express here any final conclusion about the authenticity of the bottles...Personally, however, I stand firmly with the experts at Monticello."In other words, Hailman, like James Suckling, remains a skeptic, until the experts at Monticello, the best source of information about Jefferson, produce or accept evidence that the bottles were once connected to our wine-loving third President.
James Suckling
 —  August 29, 2007 10:37am ET
I haven't read the book Thomas. But I know that it has been well-documented that Jefferson bought wines from the top chateaux of Bordeaux from the 1780s, including Lafite, Yquem, Margaux, Mouton, and others.
William Delaney
Arlington VA —  August 29, 2007 11:15am ET
The questions I would ask are 1) was it common to engrave individual bottles with the names of their owners in late 18th century France? and 2)Is there any way of determining whether the bottles were engraved two hundred twenty years ago or at some later date? If bottles were indeed commonly engraved at that time, and the engraving itself can be proven to be roughly concurrent with the age of the bottle, I would be more likely to believe the bottles were Jefferson's. How many Th. J's were buying wine from Lafite in 1787, do you think? On the other hand, the fact that the wines were "found" in an unnamed Paris location raises a huge red credibility flag. Finally, why spend that kind of money on a bottle that is clearly past its prime? The way Bordeaux pricing is going in a few years we will have the privilege of spending $150 K per bottle of perfectly drinkable recent vintage Lafite.
John Miller
Windsor, CA —  August 29, 2007 1:08pm ET
I agree with Malcolm Forbes and wish that Th J. had "drunk the damn the bottles"! Although he should not be surprised at his son's ridiculous expenditure. It would appear that the apple has not fallen far from that tree.
Cesar Venta
VERACRUZ , MEXICO —  August 29, 2007 6:59pm ET
I was recently at " THE FORGE ", in Miami Beach, and the sommelier told me that they have a bottle of 18 th century from CH. Lafite in their cellar, that worths aproximately 25,000 us dlls. and that their cellar is the biggest for a restaurant in the USA.What is your oppinion ?
Gil Schwarz
Las —  September 3, 2007 1:27am ET
I don't think it was ever in doubt whether Jefferson actually ordered wine or drank wine from those top estates in Bordeaux...I think it is known that Forge in Miami has the biggest on-premise collection of Lafite in the world....

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