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Interview: Benjamin Wallace, Author

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header.pngIn The Billionaire’s Vinegar: The Mystery of the World’s Most Expensive Bottle of Wine, Benjamin Wallace combines the knowledge of a sommelier with an investigative reporter’s tenacity mixed in with a heavy dose of a Hollywood thriller writer. 

Wallace’s work has appeared in GQ, Food & Wine, and he was the executive editor for Philadelphia Magazine. But it was during his tenure as wine writer for the magazine that he discovered the controversial tale about a 1787 bottle of Chateau Lafite Bordeaux owned by Thomas Jefferson that fetched $156,000 at auction. Intrigued by the rumors and mysteries surrounding the bottle, Wallace investigated not just that one specific transaction, but the entire ostentatious world of wine collecting in the mid-eighties.

What he uncovered and wrote about was a cast of eccentric characters who regularly consumed wine worth tens of thousands of dollars. And, some of them may have been tempted to cheat a bit in order to secure their place in the wine world. The Billionaire’s Vinegar instructs the novice drinker without boring the experts and has the compelling story of the best page-turners.

People often ask me for recommendations on what to read and, quite frankly, it can be difficult to answer them. I have so many books going on at any one time that everything can start to blur together. But The Billionaire’s Vinegar really stood out and I’ve wholeheartedly told friends about it several times. And they haven’t been disappointed.

Wallace spoke to me about getting into magazine work, pitching editors and agents, keeping track of research, and maintaining a high shooting ratio when doing research.

Slushpile:  Published profiles of you say that you knew you wanted to be a writer by the eighth grade. What made you come to that realization?

Wallace:  I guess just, writing-composition assignments were my favorite kind, and extracurricularly, the opportunities I sought out mostly involved writing for school publications.

Slushpile:  What were your favorite books back then? What were some early literary role models?

Wallace:  Earliest, John Fitzgerald’s The Great Brain series. In high school, I was a huge Robert Ludlum fan. I must have read 15 of his books. Then I went through a Joan Didion phase; i was awed by her control of tone and her perfect sentences.

Slushpile:  You worked your way up from being a fact checker at Philadelphia Magazine and became the executive editor. Based on those experiences, what do you think freelance writers need to keep in mind as they strive to build a career?

Wallace:  It’s really hard to generalize, because I have seen people successfully take so many different paths. I never wanted to be a freelancer. I wanted to be on staff. The life of the piecework hustler always looked incredibly daunting to me. So my decisions were all based on a desire to get on staff somewhere. In the case of Philadelphia Magazine, that meant taking a big backward step to get in the door. I had been working as a humanely compensated reporter for a mergers-and-acquisitions newsletter published by Steve Brill’s American Lawyer Media. When I left to go to Philly Mag, I became a fact-checker, and I took a 55% paycut. But it was worth it to me, because it put me in a place where I would have the opportunity to write (and learn to write) the kinds of articles which had drawn me to the field in the first place.

Slushpile:  Your stint as the wine writer for the magazine started because you had a personal interest in the drink. What other personal interests would you have liked to explore, if you had the opportunity?

Wallace:  Well, to name three, I’d say: philosophy, the world of magazines, and the history of Washington, DC.

Slushpile:  You learned about the controversy surrounding bottles of wine allegedly ordered by Thomas Jefferson via a British wine critic’s memoir, correct?

Wallace:  Yes, I read about them in Tasting Pleasure: Confessions of a Wine Lover, the American edition of Jancis Robinson’s professional memoir.

Slushpile:  How much did that book detail the controversy? Was it a passing mention or did it play a large role? Many writers might not pursue the story since it had been previously published in this memoir. What made you pursue it further?

Wallace:  She spent a few pages on it. It was a passing experience in a memoir about her whole career. It seemed like the tip of an iceberg best written about by someone else. By which I mean: Her account was written by a participant, told a sliver of the story, didn’t answer the mystery, and appeared in a book that no one other than a pretty serious wine buff would ever read. I felt like there was very much a story there to be told by an outsider, to be assembled as one sweeping story, to be investigated and resolved, to be written by and for a general-interest reader, and to serve as a vehicle to tell a larger story about wine.

Slushpile:  Were there any books that you used as a role model, or an example, when you sat down to write The Billionaire’s Vinegar?

Wallace:  Very much so. I was a big fan of narrative non-fiction books such as Simon Winchester’s The Professor and the Madman, Erik Larson’s The Devil in the White City, Laura Hillenbrand’s Seabiscuit, Fred Waitzkin’s Searching for Bobby Fischer, etc., all of which give entree to an esoteric world through a compelling true story.

Slushpile:  You are clearly knowledgeable about wine. And it’s vital for a writer to be an expert and almost obsessive about a topic if they’re going to write a book like this. But how can an aspiring author evaluate their interests for widespread appeal? If I’m obsessed by business cards, how can I objectively determine if my fascination with the item can support a book that would be published by a mainstream company?

Wallace:  Well, I suppose one way is to look and see if the topic has a track record. In the case of wine, there were lots of indicators: the success of the movie Sideways, upward-trending statistics for wine-drinking in America, the success of the magazine Wine Spectator, the fact that most bookstores have a specifically defined Wine & Spirits section. There is also, of course, a tradition of narrative non-fiction. The topic is less important than the quality of the story you want to tell. I haven’t yet seen a bookstore that has a whole section devoted to books about business cards (which isn’t to say that a really great story about business cards couldn’t fly).

Slushpile:  Many aspiring nonfiction writers are interested by the whole process of getting an agent and ultimately getting the book published. How did you secure representation for the book? Did you query agents with the usual proposal and sample chapter? Or did your situation unfold in a different manner?

Wallace:  I was a writer at Philadelphia Magazine when I first thought about writing this book, and a friend of mine at the magazine, Larry Platt, who had already written a book called Keepin’ It Real: A Turbulent Season At The Crossroads With The NBA, put me in touch with his agent. I sent the agent a one-page summary, via e-mail, and the agent wrote back immediately and set me up with one of his junior agents to begin developing a proposal. That effort ultimately stalled, and when I later revived the project, I decided to go with a different agent; that second time around, another colleague from Philadelphia Magazine, Sasha Issenberg, author of The Sushi Economy: Globalization and the Making of a Modern Delicacy, hooked me up with his agent, Larry Weissman. I sent Larry a significantly more developed proposal, and he, too, was interested right away, and helped me complete the proposal.

Slushpile:  When pitching to editors and agents, how do you take into account their personal preferences? I mean, ideally, a wonderfully written and pitched book about any subject would capture a prospective agent’s attention. Your job is to communicate the material in such a compelling manner that readers can’t resist. But editors or agents are human beings with personal likes and dislikes so do you just have to hope for the best when the submission goes out? What if an editor who couldn’t stand the smell of wine got your proposal?

Wallace:  One of the reasons I ended up with the agent I did was because he had represented two friends with food-related books, so I knew he was amenable to food-ish books. As for editors, that’s where my agent comes in. It’s Larry’s job to know which editor drank too much Yellowtail at her sister’s wedding and threw up on the priest and went to rehab and now harbors an intense hatred of all wine-drinkers.

Slushpile:  Many first time authors are surprised by just how individual and specific agent and editor feedback and requests can be. This one wants you to focus on the love story while that one wants you to drop it from the book entirely. During your process of finding an agent and a publisher, did you encounter any of this? How did you decide which direction to take?

Wallace:  I had a pretty clear and articulated idea of what the book would be, and I didn’t encounter any major resistance to the direction I wanted to take. And then, to some extent, the book just went where the facts did; the story revealed itself and there really wasn’t more than one natural way to tell it.

Slushpile:  How much of the book was written when you signed the publishing contract?

Wallace:  None of the book was written in the sense of a finished chapter that ended up staying pretty much the same. When I signed the contract, it was on the basis of a 45-page proposal that summarized the story, contained an outline of chapters envisioned, and a sample chapter, but the sample chapter was kind of a hodge-podge that didn’t end up in the final book.

Slushpile:  How long did it take you to finish the book?

Wallace:  I signed the contract in the spring of 2005, continued working full-time at Philadelphia Magazine until the end of June, and then worked full-time on the book until December of 2006, when I turned in the manuscript. After that, there were a few months-long chunks of time when I continued to worked full-time on it.

Slushpile:  In the text, you provide quotes from past events and wine tastings that you did not attend. Instead, you interviewed participants of those events to get the details. How can an aspiring author be comfortable providing direct quotes based on recollections from other people?

Wallace:  A few of the quotes are recollections. A much greater number of them are drawn from contemporaneous reports, whether diary entries by people, or newspaper interviews, or even some videotape I got hold of. In the case of recollections, if several different people independently remember someone at an event they all witnessed saying exactly the same thing, I would trust it. After that, it’s a question of judgment. I would never quote an extended conversation based on recollection. I don’t think someone would remember it accurately, and it would feel fake to me, as a writer/reader. Also, if something were especially controversial, I would be more hesitant to trust someone’s memory. The other thing is, when I quote a recollection, I generally indicate that, so readers can evaluate the quote’s validity for themselves, knowing what it’s based on.

Slushpile:  It’s one thing for a reporter to go to a thirty minute press conference with a recorder or a pen and then write the story. It’s another to travel all over the world, interview dozens of people, and still keep up with all the quotes and material. While you were travelling, how did you manage your notes, recordings, and supporting material?

Wallace:  A lot of the time I used the old notebook-and-pen; often I would transcribe the interviews onto my laptop; sometimes I recorded interviews using a handheld digital recorder, and I then uploaded the recording onto my computer, and backed them up using a flash memory stick. And when I got home I would file everything in a pretty elaborate filing system, to keep track of all the information. I also, at one point (after a scare when I thought I’d lost some crucial documents), photocopied everything and stored it in a different location.

Slushpile:  Most of the principals involved in the story agreed to participate and provide at least some cooperation. But would you have been able to proceed if central figures such as Christie’s wine auctioneer Michael Broadbent or collector Hardy Rodenstock had refused to give you interviews?

Wallace:  It would have been difficult, especially in the case of Michael Broadbent. Rodenstock’s cooperation ended up being limited to some fax exchanges with me, and while his answers to questions, or non-answers in a lot of instances, told me something about him, I’m not sure the book would have suffered significantly without those interviews because he kind of has been peddling the same talking points for years, and I have letters he’s written to other people where he says much the same things he said in his faxes to me.

Slushpile:  On a similar note, for aspiring authors who are creating nonfiction proposals, how do they handle the issue of access? What happens if I say I’m going to interview Michael Jordan for a book about basketball but then I can’t reach him?

Wallace:  It’s a tricky, chicken-or-egg problem. One thing I did was to conduct two important interviews–with Broadbent and Kip Forbes–before I shopped the proposal. So I already had obtained access to them. That gave me confidence that I would be able to gain access to other important sources.  Typically, the only people you’d need to be able to promise you’d interview would be key characters. If Michael Jordan was essential to your book, you’d need to be able to guarantee a publisher that you could get access to him; so, you’d need to have already approached Jordan and secured his cooperation.

Slushpile:  Affluent wine collector Bill Koch went so far as to hire former FBI agent Jim Elroy to investigate the controversy over the alleged Jefferson wine bottles. Thus began a line of inquiry and examination that included germanium detectors, radioactive isotopes, eighteenth-century engraving equipment, and enough intrigue to lead one of the principals to remark, “This is National Treasure” in an allusion to the caper film. What was the most interesting aspect of the chase to you as you learned all the details?

Wallace:  To me, the most interesting vein was not the mystery of the wine’s authenticity but the mystery of Hardy Rodenstock: Who was this guy? Why did nobody, even supposedly close friends, know anything about his background? Why was it impossible to verify even the simplest details of his biography? Was it possible that the origin of the bottles was not a cellar in Paris but his own imagination? It was thrilling to peel back at least a few of those layers.

Slushpile:  After exploring the world of high-dollar wine collecting, what vintage do you covet? If money were no object, what extraordinary wine purchase would you make?

Wallace:  One of the things I learned is that the idea of a most-coveted wine is illusory. No wine can live up to those kinds of expectations or hopes. And when these wines cost the multiple thousands of dollars that they now cost, it’s just not worth it to buy them. I drank some of those wines, with high expectations, and was disappointed; and I wasn’t even paying for them (I drank them at tastings and on other occasions where I was present as a journalist). I can only imagine how much more disappointed I would have been if I had been paying for them. So, if money were no object, I would spend it not on a single trophy purchase, but on creating a working cellar, well stocked with lots of good wines, but none so precious that I’d be afraid to open it.

Slushpile:  In The Billionaire’s Vinegar, you do a masterful job of doling out wine details so novices can follow along but connoisseurs won’t be bored. How did you strike such a delicate balance of educating readers without bogging down the narrative?

Wallace:  Striking that balance was central to what I hoped to accomplish, and it was at the forefront of my mind as I made the countless small writing and storytelling decisions that add up to a book. Since I was writing the book for people like me, who had wished such a book existed, I was a natural surrogate for the non-connoisseur reader.

Slushpile:  What are you going to work on next?

Wallace:  I’m focusing on magazine work at the moment–most recently a story for GQ about someone who survived a lengthy coma.

Slushpile:  What is your single-best, most-important, can’t-live-without writing tip you would offer to aspiring authors?

Wallace:  When it comes to non-fiction, I’m a big believer in the benefits of a high “shooting ratio”–really logging enough time in the reporting process to obtain enough material that when you sit down to write, you have choices.

Slushpile:  What is your single-best, most-important, can’t-live-without publishing tip you would offer to aspiring authors struggling to break into print?

Wallace:  Look at people who are doing what you’d like to be doing. Study how they got there. Follow in their footsteps.

To learn more about Wallace, check out his website.

[Photo credit: David Fields]