THE PATH that led to Benjamin Wallace's new book investigating "the longest-running mystery in the modern wine world" began when Wallace attempted a piece of his own skullduggery, a trick very dear to any writer's heart: to have a bit of recreation paid for by his bosses.

"I was kind of a foodie at the time, but I wasn't a wine guy," Wallace recalled after a recent book signing at the Free Library of Philadelphia's central branch. It was 2000, and he was working as a writer at Philadelphia magazine, when he decided he wanted to know more about wine and enrolled in a class.

"I tried to expense that class, and Philadelphia magazine's then-editor, Steve Fried, basically said, 'If you want to do that, you have to write about wine for us.' So I reluctantly became the magazine's wine writer just in order to not have to pay for this wine class I'd taken."

The move ended up being valuable, and not just for recouping Wallace's class fees. It was during his wine research that a British wine critic's memoir introduced him to the story of the most expensive bottle of wine ever sold and its controversial history.

Wallace has recounted the bottle's saga in "The Billionaire's Vinegar," a page-turner involving centuries-old bottles, a hidden cellar, high-stakes auctions, wealthy tycoons at play and an American president with a taste for fine vintages.

Growing up in Washington, D.C., Wallace knew by the eighth grade that he wanted to be a writer. He majored in English with a minor in philosophy at Georgetown University, aiming to become "a magazine writer who wrote books." After a brief stint teaching and writing in the Czech Republic and Hungary, he moved to New York and spent two years working for a financial newsletter before starting over at Philadelphia Magazine.

"I was writing about mergers and acquisitions for an audience of about 500 lawyers and investment bankers, and I learned a lot about reporting by doing it," Wallace said. "But it was far afield from the kind of general-interest pieces that had drawn me to writing. So I took a huge pay cut and came to Philadelphia as a fact checker and just worked my way up."

Wallace spent his last three years at the magazine as its executive editor, during which time "The Billionaire's Vinegar" came together. He had been inspired by a recent spate of narrative nonfiction books "that illuminated interesting, maybe esoteric, but really fascinating worlds."

Those books included Simon Winchester's "The Professor and the Madman," which described lexicography and the history of the Oxford English Dictionary by means of a story about murder and insanity; "Searching for Bobby Fischer," which discussed chess via the biography of a young prodigy and his relationship with his father; and "The Perfect Storm," a lesson on oceanography dressed up in an adventure tale.

"I thought wine was crying out for a book like that," Wallace said, "because it's such a difficult and challenging subject to learn about. Most wine books are either 'Wine for Dummies' or really technical, encyclopedic things like 'A History of Weather Patterns in the Cote d'Or in Burgundy.' So I tried to find a story through which you could learn about wine through osmosis."

That story came via a bottle of 1787 Chateau Lafite Bordeaux, sold at auction by Christie's in 1985 to the Forbes family for $156,000. The bottle was allegedly discovered in a secret, walled-up cellar in France, part of a cache that had once belonged to Thomas Jefferson.

That "allegedly" is the crux of Wallace's book, which attempts to unravel the obscure (often intentionally) history of the Jefferson bottles and the indescribable fortunes that have become appended to them. Close to 30 of those bottles have been sold at auctions or offered at high-profile tastings, and several are now the subject of pending lawsuits.

Alongside this convoluted mystery, Wallace offers a compelling history of the rare-wine market; but the true strength of the book is the illuminating profiles the author sketches of the gaggle of colorful eccentrics at its center.

They include Michael Broadbent, the British auctioneer who founded the modern wine auction market when he established Christie's wine division; Hardy Rodenstock, the German dealer who found the Jefferson bottles; and Bill Koch, a Florida billionaire who has spared no expense in his investigation of the four Jefferson bottles in his possession.

"To participate in this world of rare and old wine," Wallace said, "you either have to be extremely wealthy, which means that you're probably an extreme person; or kind of an obsessive, and those guys are by nature eccentric. I didn't realize going in that this would be the case."

By the time Wallace began investigating the story, questions and accusations had been raised for so long that many of his subjects were naturally wary.

Broadbent, a leading expert and author on the subject of wine and an instrumental figure in the story, had perhaps the most to lose. But he graciously invited Wallace to lunch at his private men's club, where they shared several glasses of champagne, wine and sherry.

"Even though this is something he's wary of," Wallace said of Broadbent, "it's also something that's been a badge of honor for many years. It's the most famous bottle of wine ever sold, and for many years he would talk about selling that bottle as part of his biography. He has mixed feelings about it, but he still believes it to be real."

According to Wallace, Broadbent's initial reaction to the book, as expressed personally and to Crown Publishers, was surprisingly favorable. He's apparently reversed that assessment, issuing a statement through Christie's that the book "is riddled with inaccuracies and misrepresentations, most glaring of which is the author's mischaracterization of Mr. Broadbent's relationship with Mr. Rodenstock. Mr. Broadbent's relationship with Mr. Rodenstock has always been professional, transparent and appropriate."

The farthest Wallace will go in implicating Broadbent is in suggesting that the auctioneer's "salesman's blinders" obscured the obvious flaws in the bottles' provenance. But he didn't approach the story as an expose.

"I was open-minded going in; I really didn't know whether the bottles were real or fake," Wallace said. "I actually hoped they would be real, because I was much more intrigued by the idea that Thomas Jefferson's wine had actually survived 200 years and been discovered in this hidden cellar. It's actually less cool to think that didn't happen and they were cooked up in Hardy Rodenstock's basement.

"At the same time, once the story burgeoned into an exploration of the counterfeit wine world, that had its own intrigue. It was still interesting to report, but it wasn't necessarily what I would have hoped for the outcome to be." *

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