Three decades ago, at the Napa Valley wine auction, two giants of the Southern California retail wine trade became locked in a battle to acquire a large bottle of a Chappellet Cabernet.
The bottle was, obviously, a prize. And the two men basically didn’t like each other very much. So the bidding kept escalating. At one point, during a lull in the bidding, one of the men blurted, “You don’t have enough money,” and he thrust his paddle even higher, which only got the bidding more frenzied.
The winner paid something like $6,000 and gloated the rest of the evening.
The value of a bottle of wine is related to many things, not just its scarcity and its (theoretically exalted) brand name. But bragging rights come with a price, which often is the case at charity auctions like Napa’s. The final bid on many lots often has nothing to do with the wine’s real-world price.
Occasionally, a wine sells for an outrageous sum because the winning bidder has ulterior motives — tax advantages, another charity auction some months later, a silent bidder.
The real value of a bottle of wine only reflects how badly two or more people want it. When there is a tug-of-war between competing factions, auction-room fever can rise precipitously. And the winning bidder usually pays a lot more than the wine is actually worth.
When the results of wine auctions are reported in newspaper stories, I typically get queries from people asking what a particular wine is worth. The value of a single bottle of wine is related to how well it was stored, among other parameters, and in my experience, most of the times I’m asked the value of a bottle, I have to deliver the sad news: nothing.
The problem can come down to mere provenance. Almost never is the questioner aware of how vital the storage conditions must be, even for relatively young wine, for a bottle to improve.
About 35 years ago, a woman called to ask the value of a bottle of “champagne” she had been saving for two decades for a special occasion. I asked the brand name. She named a California winery that went out of business in the 1960s.
A few years later, a gentleman said had held onto a Bordeaux for “about 20 years.” It had been in his kitchen cupboard since he got it as a gift. I told him his best bet was to open it and not expect very much.
Carefully cellared red wines can be priceless, and rare treats, of course, but storage conditions must be very cool and year-around and preferably unchanging. Light must be minimal (zero is best), and the wine must have been made with the aging cellar in mind. And such wines must be made to improve.
Almost no $6 wine will make it past two or three years in better shape than when it was put away.
We have been aging red wines for more than 40 years. Nearly every bottle was originally selected to have the proper constituency to age. We have almost never had a bad experience. Even wines at age 50 have developed interesting characteristics.
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Last year, a wine lover paid $8,000 for a dinner with wines from our cellar. One of the wines we opened was a bottle of 1974 Heitz Cabernet Sauvignon “Martha’s Vineyard,” which I bought in 1979 for $25.
A year ago, the wine, then 44 years old, was simply superb. Today a bottle of it would set you back well over $2,000. But if you had any of it, chances are its storage conditions might be questioned, and there would be only a small number of interested parties, all of whom would offered a lot less than $2,000.
In my experience, the wines with the best track record of delivering quality after several decades of aging are exalted red wines from Italy, such as Barolo, Brunello di Montalcino, and Barbaresco.
Even the best Chianti seems to begin to fade at 20 years. Bordeaux from great houses in great vintages can deliver superb flavors after 30 years or more, but not every Bordeaux is best with age. Burgundies and Pinot Noirs are shorter-lived, most of them best at 10-20 years.
Even the highest-caliber Zinfandel seems best at age 10, but the humble Petite Sirah can age at least twice as long.
Perhaps the longest-lived “red” wines are vintage Ports from Portugal. The exalted 1963s I’ve tasted are today beyond 50 years old, and many are still improving!
Among whites that live longest are dry Rieslings (notably from Germany) and Hunter Valley (Australia) Semillons.
Dessert wines can mature for years as well, such as Sauternes (like the iconic Chateau d’Yquem) and the dual Loire Valley appellations of Quarts de Chaume and Bonnezeaux, both made from Chenin Blanc.
Today’s younger buyers have had little exposure to the glories of older red wines, and as a result there seems to be far less interest in mature flavors. Most millennial buyers seem far more interested in consuming their red wines as young as possible.
One consequence of this is that the construction of underground wine cellars in private homes has declined precipitously since the 1980s, when many California red wines were being produced specifically to the aged.
In fact, most of today’s winemakers worry less about how a wine will age and more about how well it would sell for immediate consumption.
For those of us with lots and lots of older Napa Valley Cabernets that we’ve perfectly stored, the number of people who appreciate such flavors is declining. It’s a legacy that is fast disappearing.
Wine of the Week: 2018 Domaine Bousquet Chardonnay, Tupungato Valley ($13)—Citrus, anise and pear mingle in this completely unoaked version of Chardonnay from a very cool region of Argentina. The entry and finish are attractively crisp, and food-oriented.