Perceptive Travel Book Reviews
by David Farley

The Billionaire's Vinegar: The Mystery of the World's Most Expensive Bottle of Wine
By Benjamin Wallace

With a journalist's eye and an anthropologist's curiosity, Benjamin Wallace plunges into the weird world of vintage wine fetish. A well–written history, an intriguing mystery, The Billionaire's Vinegar's focus is on a cache of wine bottles that were purported to have belonged to Thomas Jefferson in the 1790s. To add to the mystique, the bottles were engraved with Jefferson's initials and were found by one Hardy Rodenstock, a German connoisseur of ancient wine. The wine world rushed in at first, a Forbes family member breaking record sales to fetch a Jefferson bottle, bought one. So did the founder of Wine Spectator magazine and many other wealthy wine collectors.

Soon bottles kept coming out of the woodwork (or, er, the mysterious Parisian cellar where the bottles were allegedly discovered). Many, however, grew skeptical. There were minute issues with the bottles that gave some in the field of vintage wine pause. Benjamin Wallace does a masterful job of blending several story lines—that of Rodenstock, several (remorseful) buyers of the bottles, Michael Broadbent (the wine director at Christie's in London, where the bottles were first auctioned), and Thomas Jefferson's own proclivities for Bordeaux wine. The book takes readers to Boston, New York, Florida, London, and Central Europe. Wallace's thoroughly researched account also makes for thrilling page–turning reading: as new characters are introduced and new evidence is discovered about the bottles, the narrative increases in tension.

The Billionaire's Vinegar is currently being transformed for the big screen. Given the tight narrative Wallace has spun, it should do as well on the screen as it has done on the page.

Rag and Bone: A Journey Among the World's Holy Dead
By Peter Manseau

If you know where to look, particularly when traveling in Europe, body parts are on display everywhere. St. Anthony's tongue can be seen in Padua. The gargantuan gothic cathedral in Cologne houses the bodies of the Three Wise Men. St. Catherine of Siena's (partially deteriorating) six–and–a–half–century–old head is on display in a cathedral in her home city (her body, however, is 175 miles south in Rome). And while the Catholic church has quietly downplayed the function of relics in the Post Vatican II era, these intriguing curios are all around, displayed like remnants left from another age of human thinking, relics that survived the meteoric blast of the scientific revolution. Author Peter Manseau goes on a quest to find some interesting holy curios in his intriguing book, Rag and Bone. He doesn't just stick to the relics of Christian saints and holy people. He travels, for example, to Kashmir to spy the alleged beard of Mohamed. He goes in search of the Buddha's tooth as well as the remnants of a Tibetan lama.

When he does touch on the relics of Christianity, though, he eschews the typical and most popular of the sort; the Shroud of Turin, for example, would have been too easy. Instead, he travels to Goa to learn about the body of St. Francis Xavier. He hangs out with a paleopathologist in France discussing the supposed rib of Joan of Arc. He travels to Jerusalem in search of the Holy Foreskin (he should have gone to Rome and Calcata—take my word for it).

Manseau is not an apologist for relic veneration or the Church. Nor is he in the business of debunking relics. One of his main points, that a relic's authenticity is less significant than the devotees' belief that it's really the real thing, brings up important questions about the nature of faith itself. With each chapter taking on a different relic, this fascinating book becomes a travelogue of mini round–the–world journeys, discovering revered and, in many cases, relatively unknown, body parts of holy human beings.

David Farley is the author of An Irreverent Curiosity: In Search of the Church's Strangest Relic in Italy's Oddest Town and co–editor of Travelers' Tales Prague and the Czech Republic: True Stories.

Also in this issue:

The Billionaire's Vinegar

Buy The Billionaire's Vinegar in your local bookstore or online here:
Amazon US
Amazon Canada
Amazon UK
Fishpond (Australia)

Rag and Bone

Buy Rag and Bone in your local bookstore or online here:
Amazon US
Amazon Canada
Amazon UK
Fishpond (Australia)

Sign Up