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Broadbent should not have sued

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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.

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  1. Steve,

    The suit was in the UK, where libel suits are not handled as they are here–the one doing the suing usually has the court on his/her side. Random House probably wanted to shut the noise off, and save legal fees.

    In any case, I understand that the settlement applies only in the UK.

  2. Thomas, I think you’re right. I still don’t understand why Broadbent did it.

  3. For a start, Will Smith is producing a movie on it, so who knows how my father will be portrayed. It was important to him that the movie does not use his name or, otherwise, gets the story right. This win in the British Courts gives the producer a heads up because if he repeats any of the libel or defamation, there can be an injunction and the film would not be allowed to be shown anywhere in Europe. That is a big movie market.

  4. Bartholomew, but what exactly was the libel or defamation? Your father simply came across to me (in the book) as earnest, hard-working and diligent.

  5. Steve, my takeaway was a bit different after reading the book. Although I deeply respect and admire Michael Broadbent for all of his contributions, the fact is that very many old wines were involved in the alleged fraud – not just the single Th. J bottle. These, according to the book’s author, were wines that were auctioned, written about, and may have in fact influenced a lot of the judgments in Broadbent’s own Great Vintage Wine Book(s). So Mr. Broadbent is right to be concerned about the impact on his reputation and his legacy as the greatest authority of all time on really old wines. Whether or not his suit has any merit, I am not in a position to judge. But I can certainly understand why it was brought.

  6. Paul, how could the Th.J bottles have influenced Broadbent’s judgments in the Great Vintage Wine Books? Maybe I’m not seeing the connection. And even if every one of the Th.J bottles was fake, why would that have any negative impact on Broadbent’s reputation?

  7. Pretty sure that Broadbent did this because in the UK he could – would have been much, much tougher case in the U.S.

  8. Dave Yuhas says:

    “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.”

    Actually, Broadbent was merely the auctioneer, though he did have testing by Christie’s experts done.

    To wit: “The book tells the story of German collector, Rodenstock who had allegedly found rare bottles of Chateau Lafite walled up in a basement in Paris. An 1787 Lafite engraved Th:J sparked worldwide interest because it was thought that Jefferson had bought the bottles when he was in Paris serving as ambassador. Three of the bottles were sold at Christie’s, where Broadbent worked, between 1985 and 1987 including the the 1787 Lafite which was bought by Malcolm Forbes for $156,450 fin a 1985 auction.”

    –http://www.luxist.com/2009/10/14/broadbent-settles-in-billionaires-vinegar-lawsuit

  9. Morton Leslie says:

    I haven’t read the book, but I have worked with Broadbent several times on auctions in America and I don’t recall a time that he was responsible for actually authenticating the provenance of the wines offered at auction. He was the auctioneer bringing knowledge, authority, and class to the sale. I would think he would be sensitive to the exact characterization of his involvement in the due diligence on the bottle. If verification of authenticity was the responsibility of Christies or someone else, yet ascribed in the book to him personally, I could understand his reasons for wanting it straightened out. That hits him in the bread and butter. I don’t see how standing up to a mis-characterization could hurt his reputation. My immediate reaction to such a suit would be the opposite.

  10. Morton, everybody will have different perceptions, as usual, but mine of Broadbent was not in the least negative. Hardy Rodenstock? Hell yeah, a questionable character. But Broadbent was human and if this was a fake — and who knows? — if he was taken in he can be forgiven. I suppose given British libel laws he felt this was the right thing to do, but not being in his position I’m sorry he did.

  11. I first met Michael Broadbent 35 years ago during a wine auction he conducted in New Orleans and have always had the utmost respect for him. His lawsuit may be a win-win-win for Random House, Benjamin Wallace and him. He gets what he believes he needs to protect his well-deserved reputation and the publisher and author get tremendous publicity. I remember this auction well but hadn’t heard of this book until news on the lawsuit surfaced. After reading your praise of this book I can’t wait to read it. Being banned in Briton I’m sure will make readers there want it even more and many copies printed elsewhere will make there way to England. This could also serve as great advance press for the film.

  12. It’s not just journalists Steve, even Twitter has been fair grounds of law suit for a while now: http://www.chicagonow.com/blogs/chicago-bar-tender/2009/07/exhibit-a-will-one-chicago-womans-tweet-cost-her-50000.html

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