Benjamin Wallace: The price of happiness-1

On the fifth of December 1985, a bottle of 1787 Lafitte was sold for 105,000 pounds — nine times the previous world record. The buyer was Kip Forbes, son of one of the most flamboyant millionaires of the 20th century. The original owner of the bottle turned out to be one of the most enthusiastic wine buffs of the 18th century. Château Lafitte is one of the greatest wines in the world, the prince of any wine cellar.

Benjamin Wallace: Now, that’s about all the videotape that remains of an event that set off the longest-running mystery in the modern wine world. And the mystery existed because of a gentleman named Hardy Rodenstock. In 1985, he announced to his friends in the wine world that he had made this incredible discovery. Some workmen in Paris had broken through a brick wall, and happened upon this hidden cache of wines — apparently the property of Thomas Jefferson. 1787, 1784. He wouldn’t reveal the exact number of bottles, he would not reveal exactly where the building was and he would not reveal exactly who owned the building. The mystery persisted for about 20 years.

It finally began to get resolved in 2005 because of this guy. Bill Koch is a Florida billionaire who owns four of the Jefferson bottles, and he became suspicious. And he ended up spending over a million dollars and hiring ex-FBI and ex-Scotland Yard agents to try to get to the bottom of this. There’s now ample evidence that Hardy Rodenstock is a con man, and that the Jefferson bottles were fakes.

But for those 20 years, an unbelievable number of really eminent and accomplished figures in the wine world were sort of drawn into the orbit of these bottles. I think they wanted to believe that the most expensive bottle of wine in the world must be the best bottle of wine in the world, must be the rarest bottle of wine in the world. I became increasingly, kind of voyeuristically interested in the question of you know, why do people spend these crazy amounts of money, not only on wine but on lots of things, and are they living a better life than me?

So, I decided to embark on a quest. With the generous backing of a magazine I write for sometimes, I decided to sample the very best, or most expensive, or most coveted item in about a dozen categories, which was a very grueling quest, as you can imagine.

This was the first one. A lot of the Kobe beef that you see in the U.S. is not the real thing. It may come from Wagyu cattle, but it’s not from the original, Appalachian Hyogo Prefecture in Japan. There are very few places in the U.S. where you can try real Kobe, and one of them is Wolfgang Puck’s restaurant, Cut, in Los Angeles. I went there, and I ordered the eight-ounce rib eye for 160 dollars. And it arrived, and it was tiny. And I was outraged. It was like, 160 dollars for this? And then I took a bite, and I wished that it was tinier, because Kobe beef is so rich. It’s like foie gras — it’s not even like steak. I almost couldn’t finish it. I was really happy when I was done.

Now, the photographer who took the pictures for this project for some reason posed his dog in a lot of them, so that’s why you’re going to see this recurring character. Which, I guess, you know, communicates to you that I did not think that one was really worth the price.

White truffles. One of the most expensive luxury foods by weight in the world. To try this, I went to a Mario Batali restaurant in Manhattan — Del Posto. The waiter, you know, came out with the white truffle knob and his shaver, and he shaved it onto my pasta and he said, you know, “Would Signore like the truffles?” And the charm of white truffles is in their aroma. It’s not in their taste, really. It’s not in their texture. It’s in the smell. These white pearlescent flakes hit the noodles, this haunting, wonderful, nutty, mushroomy smell wafted up. 10 seconds passed and it was gone. And then I was left with these little ugly flakes on my pasta that, you know, their purpose had been served, and so I’m afraid to say that this was also a disappointment to me. There were several — several of these items were disappointments.

They did give me a tour, though. And this hotel suite is 4,300 square feet. It has 360-degree views. It has four balconies. It was designed by the architect I.M. Pei. It comes with its own Rolls Royce and driver. It comes with its own wine cellar that you can draw freely from. When I took the tour, it actually included some Opus One, I was glad to see. 30,000 dollars for a night in a hotel.

Om Namah Shivay

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