Broadbent should not have sued
This report, in Asimov’s Times column, that Michael Broadbent has settled his lawsuit against Random House over The Billionaire’s Vinegar book, concerns me very much. As a journalist, blogger and author myself (A Wine Journey along the Russian River and New Classic Winemakers of California), I’m deeply troubled that Random House, the publisher, “apologized for the allegations” and “also paid an undisclosed amount of damages to Mr. Broadbent and agreed not to distribute the book in the United Kingdom.”
The background of all this is too complicated to describe in detail. The author of The Billionaire’s Vinegar, Benjamin Wallace, described a series of events in the 1980s relating to the purchase of a bottle of 1787 Lafite at auction by the late American business magnate, Malcolm Forbes. It was a very famous and controversial transaction, because the bottle bore the engraved initials Th.J., which supposedly indicated it had belonged to Thomas Jefferson. Forbes paid $156,000 for it, making it the then most expensive bottle of wine ever sold.
Broadbent was the auctioneer who gaveled the wine and had been intimately involved in liberating it from the dusty, hidden cellar in which it (and other bottles) was found. In his lawsuit, which was against Random House, not Wallace (for some reason), Broadbent alleged that the book made false depictions of him that cast aspersions on his character. Random House evidently felt that the British court in which the suit was filed would agree with Broadbent. Why else would they have settled?
It needs also to be said that Eric Asimov did a fine piece of reportage in the article, getting interviews with both Wallace and Broadbent’s son, Bartholomew. Wallace expressed outrage that Random House settled, and maintained that he, Wallace, “never felt that Mr. Broadbent acted in bad faith, and contrary to his claims, I maintain that ‘The Billionaire’s Vinegar’ does not suggest that he did.’’
I’ve read The Billionaire’s Vinegar and in my judgment, nothing Wallace wrote was ad hominem, inflammatory, derogatory, baseless or impugned Broadbent’s character. Broadbent, in fact, comes across as painstakingly thorough in researching the bottle. Others might find him a little credulous; I didn’t. It doesn’t matter if the bottle was a fake; what matters is that Broadbent believed it was real. Wallace, a professional writer and editor, did first-rate journalism, quoting people he’d interviewed and relating the facts as they occurred. The Billionaire’s Vinegar is an outstanding work of journalism. I wish I’d written it.
What shocks and bothers me is the effect this kind of lawsuit could have on journalists who might hedge their bets, and perhaps not even write certain articles, if they’re afraid of getting sued. Heck, I’m even reluctant to write this blog. Maybe I said something wrong and Broadbent will sue me? Ditto for publishing houses. Will Random House and others now refuse to publish certain books because their lawyers advise them not to?
I’ve got to say that Michael Broadbent is an amazing person, a very important one in the history of wine in the late 20th century, and a writer whose The Great Vintage Wine Book was hugely instrumental in my own wine education. So was his Pocket Guide to Wine Tasting, whose 1979 edition I still have and treasure. It’s one of the best how-to-taste books ever. But I wish he hadn’t resorted to suing Random House. Lots of people believed, and still believe, that the Jefferson bottle was fake, but I don’t believe anybody ever thought that Broadbent was involved. With this lawsuit, unfortunately, Michael Broadbent has tarnished his reputation.