A Billionaire, Phony Bottles, and The Bomb

Founding Father Thomas Jefferson’s name was involved in a wine scandal of atomic proportions


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Sure, Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical hit about American Founding Father Alexander Hamilton is all the rage. It won a Grammy, Pulitzer, and multiple Tony Awards.

And while Hamilton’s plan to pay off American Revolutionary War debts sparked a drink-oriented controversy called The Whiskey Rebellion, his political rival Thomas Jefferson’s name is attached to one of the most notorious wine scandals of this century — one that includes phony bottles, a billionaire, and even the atomic bomb. 

In the 1980s, billionaire William Koch (the nearly-as-rich, if not as famously political, brother to Koch Industries Inc., owners Charles and David) spent around a half-million dollars on four bottles that allegedly belonged to Jefferson, our nation’s third president.

German music publisher/wine collector Hardy Rodenstock had claimed he had bottles dating back to 1787 that were found inside a walled-up Paris basement wine cellar.

The bottles were etched with the initials “Th.J,” suggesting they were once owned by Jefferson when he was the American envoy to the French government. 

Jefferson was a known wine lover. He kept records of his purchases and brought back cuttings of some of his favorite wine’s plants to graft them over to vines at his Monticello, Va., home.

The fraud began to unravel when Koch loaned the bottles to the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston for an exhibit. The museum checked with Monticello, which responded that there is no record of Jefferson ever buying that type of wine. 

Oops.

Koch hired a former FBI agent, then a team with all sorts of expertise, to find the truth.

They had to find a way of dating the wine without opening the bottles. Once the cork is pulled and air contacts wine that old, it flattens out after only a few hours.

They called on a French physicist named Philippe Hubert. He claimed to have a way to date the wine without opening the bottles. 

How? Well, the first atomic bombs released a radioactive isotope called cesium-137. The wind carried it everywhere in the world. So wine containing cesium-137 must have been bottled after 1945. 

The team brought the bottles to the French Alps, where Hubert used a special gamma ray detector to run tests. The result: No cesium-137. Therefore, the wine had been made prior to the 1940s. Good news, possibly?

Koch’s sleuths dug deeper, looking on the outside of the bottles. The engraver of the “Th.J” initials had left minuscule tracks that could not have been done by hand, and in fact were made by a modern electric dentistry tool. 

Koch eventually sued Rodenstock and recovered some, but not all, of his losses. 

Meanwhile, a movie based on a book called The Billionaire’s Vinegar about the wine controversy is in development. No word if it’s being eyed to become the next Hamilton Broadway musical, though. 

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