Wine: Case History

In a dispute going back decades, some missing wine provided a rift — and ultimately a bond — between father and son

When I was a child, my late father — “late” being the word I use as permission to tell this story — came by a case of wine from the year I was born, which was to be opened on my 20th birthday.

It was 1945 Château Mouton Rothschild, which a quick search of the web shows is now the world’s most expensive commercially available wine, worth $18,000 to $21,000 per bottle at auction — easily the price of a Harvard law degree.

The problem was, he drank it. I guess it’s the thought that counts. I never went to Harvard Law.

To be fair, I don’t really know this to be a provable fact. I’m going on a process of deduction that suggests strongly it was my father.

I suppose it could have been my mother, but mothers wouldn’t do a thing like that to their darling first born, and especially to an only son.

My sisters were all too young and unaware of the wine, which leaves my parents as the only possible culprits. Since I never dared lead an inquest against either of them (or call the police), I don’t really know any of this with absolute certainty.

Neither do I know how he obtained the case of Mouton. We had a comfortable, middle-class life. We lived in France, where I grew up, because Dad was a foreign correspondent. But he wasn’t getting rich on a Newspaper Guild reporter’s salary plus expenses from the New York Herald Tribune or, later, from his pay at the Los Angeles Times.

The other thing is that, in those days, the days before wine prices went insane in the 1980s and 1990s, he may have been able to buy it on a payment plan, arrangements that were more informal and often done privately in France.

Still, the disappearance of the wine became an issue with me when I reached my dark, awful teenage years and Dad and I quarreled endlessly. I’d lash out at him with something stupid in defense of my miscreant behavior. He’d end up saying nasty things like: “You’ll never amount to anything. Go to your room and read Emerson or Thoreau!”

I’d think: “Oh, right, that will work, Dad,” and go to my room and slam the door.

He’d always end those battles by leaving the works of Ralph Waldo Emerson at my door, marked to the page of the essay “Self-Reliance.”

Clearly, I was not a very good child. But Dad was not a very good parent — with me in particular — although he improved vastly with my sisters. He behaved as if he’d skipped his own childhood and went right to adulthood at age 4 or 5, with approval from Emerson and Thoreau, of course.

He also somehow never remembered the previous time we had quarreled, and that he had left Mr. Emerson outside my door.

A few years later, when my sisters and I became aware the wine was missing, I asked what happened. I got one of those vague “the dog did it” answers and avoidance that parents are good at.

I wasn’t really hurt that the wine was gone, because it gave me a wonderful opening to be the martyr and make Dad into the evil adult.

I just knew that every time we fought, and while I was in my room pouting, Mr. Emerson at the door, my loving father was in the basement opening another bottle of “my” wine and fuming, “I’ll show that little bastard,” until it was all gone.

Over the years, Dad and I made peace and we came to really love each other, but I never had the heart to pin him down about what really happened to that wine. I just let it go.

Some years after Dad died, I finally read “Self-Reliance.” Now, if only I could afford a bottle of that 1945 Château Mouton Rothschild, life would be really good.

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