I’ve been on a serious reading kick lately. Since my trip to Greece (when I read The Tragic Teenage Cancer Love Story with the Unrealistic Male Lead), I’ve been steadily digesting book after book. I’ve always loved reading and I generally love to have a book on my nightstand or in my bag at all times, but there are spells when I fall out of the habit. These lulls usually happen because I hit a book that I’m not totally into, and therefore my reading slows down. It becomes more and more of a chore to read when a book is just not grabbing my attention (and I rarely rarely rarely rarely quit a book; it just feels wrong). You would think that when I finish one of those not-so-interesting-slow-progressing books, I’d be thrilled to finally be done with it so I can start a new, potentially better book. But actually, I find that those books kind of just put me off reading in general and it takes me awhile to get back in the swing of things.
I say all of this because I read one of those not-so-great books earlier this year, and it led to a fallow reading period for me. The book was The Billionaire’s Vinegar: The Mystery of the World’s Most Expensive Bottle of Wine. Great title, right!?
I had wanted to read this book for quite awhile. It’s the true story of a bottle of 1787 Lafite that was supposedly owned by Thomas Jefferson and discovered in a walled up Paris cellar in the 1980s. The bottle was sold at auction in 1985 for over $150,000. The authenticity of the bottle, its provenance, and the reputation of Hardy Rodenstock (the man who claimed to have discovered the cellar) were all called into question immediately, and the controversy was revisited repeatedly in the ensuing years. As I work in an auction house, I was intrigued by the auction element; as a former history major, I was interested in the historical aspect; and as a breathing human, I was hooked by the mysterious drama of it all. In other words, my expectations were HIGH.
The book is not in print in the UK, so I nabbed a copy when I was home at Christmas last year. I eagerly started reading when I was back in London but after a chapter or two, my progress ground to a slow and painful crawl. This book had so much promise: Big spenders! Possible forgery! Potential con men! Reputations on the line! So why was it so difficult to get through?!
After opening with the sale of the bottle, Benjamin Wallace goes on to write at length about a ton of different wine tastings and various characters within the Super Old Wines World, instead of focusing on the big draw: Is the bottle fake or not? These tastings all relate in some way to Hardy Rodenstock, the Jefferson bottles (there were several more in addition to the 1787 Lafite), and other old bottles he purportedly discovered. As I read the book, though, all the tastings and all the people involved seemed to become one indistinguishable mass. Every chapter seemed more or less identical: one of the bottles is opened at a lavish party; some people marvel at it’s amazing taste and how well its been preserved; others are skeptical and accuse Rodenstock of forgery; something about the shape of the bottle, the size of the cork, the engraving is mentioned; the Jefferson people or some other historical body raise objections about the provenance; and so on and so forth. Always the same story. Over and over and over again.
It’s only at the very end of the book that Wallace gets to the crux of the issue: whether or not the bottle was fake. It is an extremely long walk to get to the really interesting question and when he finally addresses it straight on, he dispenses with it in two short chapters. Not cool.
Perhaps if I were more into wine, I would have appreciated all the who’s-who of the wine world and the stuff about vintages, grapes, bug infestations, glass shapes, etc. As it was, I was forcing myself to sit down and read 20 pages occasionally. And – while this will sound super harsh – it had nothing to do with the story and everything to do with the telling. Wallace took a super intriguing tale and beat all the interest out of it. What a disappointment!
Fortunately, the trip to Greece got me back on the reading horse, and I have been powering through books since May. And the book I most recently finished was in a similar vein to The Billionaire’s Vinegar, but SO MUCH BETTER.
This one was called The Telling Room: A Tale of Love, Betrayal, Revenge, and the World’s Greatest Piece of Cheese. Another great title, right?! And unlike the story of the wine, the story of the cheese did not disappoint.
Michael Paterniti’s book tells the story of Paramo de Guzmán, a rare sheep’s milk cheese created by Ambrosio Molinos in the small Castilian town of Guzmán. While the book is ostensibly about this cheese – about how it was lovingly created by Ambrosio, built into a successful business by him and subsequently lost either through an act of betrayal by his best friend or through a poor grasp of business (depending on who you ask) – it is actually about so much more.
It’s about how we relate to the earth; about where our food comes from; about the modern pace of life; about the stories that make up our personal and communal history; about the importance of family; about the joy and the pain of friendships; about how we view ourselves and how others view us; about the love of one’s country; about pausing to enjoy life’s small pleasures; about understanding where you’ve come from; about the desire to achieve something significant; and so much more.
If you can’t tell, I absolutely LOVED this book. Truth time: I even cried at one point. I cried reading a book about cheese! It’s just so well done – layered, surprising, heartfelt, personal. So so good.
In reality, it’s probably unfair to compare The Billionaire’s Vinegar and The Telling Room. Wallace told a story about wine; a story in which he was not personally involved at any point. Paterniti’s book is almost a memoir at times. He is both the distinctive narrative voice of and an active character in the story. He lived in Guzman for a summer, researching the story, spending time with Ambrosio Molinos (they are pictured together in the image above*), and attempting to embrace the slower paced Castilian lifestyle. The book is as much about the cheese as it is about his own writing process and journey of discovery.
But stylistic differences aside, there are basic similarities to the stories. Each tale deals with a food/drink product surrounded by intrigue, history, and drama. In the end it comes down to the fact that I think Paterniti is a better storyteller than Wallace. Obviously, it may just be a matter of taste. Some people may love Wallace’s focus on wine tastings rather than potential forgery. Some people would probably hate the way Paterniti inserts himself into the Story of the Cheese, or his prolific use of footnotes, or the seeming tangents he goes on from time to time; but I loved all those things. They served to make the story of Ambrosio Molinos and his cheese so much richer – simultaneously more epic and more personal.
Suffice it to say, since finishing The Telling Room, I’ve been dreaming of a road trip through Spain – eating cheese and ham, drinking wine, telling stories. When I finished The Billionaire’s Vinegar, my feelings about both wine and auctions remained unchanged.
*That picture links to a GQ interview with Paterniti about the book. Worth a read.