To lose one’s wine once is unfortunate…
My short career in the British Army which lasted as long as two lengthy fermentations or the time it took a fictitious 19th Century Englishman to circumnavigate the world was punctuated by two disasters happening within weeks of each other. I lost an SLR rifle and then a magazine with twenty rounds of ammunition both, in knee deep water. My fledgling career as a wine auctioneer did not start off well either. In one of those dog tired moments - after a day cataloging and preparing the removal of a cellar, I left a bottle each of 1797 Terrantez Madiera and 1864 Chateau Lafite at Adelaide Airport. I often wonder what might have happened to them?
Over the last twenty odd years I have come across several wine disasters and curious incidents; most of them have been acts of God, incompetence or equipment failure. Providing valuation and specialist wine advice is part and parcel of my bailiwick. This extends to advisory and expert witness work in matters of family law to crime such as theft or smuggling cocaine in wine. In most matters the issue of provenance and practical remedy fall into play. Wines with a known dubious history must always carry a caveat at auction even if the wine might not have actually been harmed. If it is the latter, some clients will keep their wines and come to an arrangement with the insurer rather than go through the trauma of a fire sale.
Unreliable thermostats and air-conditioners are the major cause of damage to wine cellars and come well before the wrath of a maligned partner or the light hands of an uncontrolled teenager party boy. On three occasions I have come across frozen shipments of fine wine. During the long voyage from Europe to Australia, reefer thermostats have malfunctioned causing the temperature to fall below freezing point. The frozen wine expands in the bottle and pushes the cork up through the capsule and sometimes all the way out. The first incident comprised the heartbreaking damage to a consignment of great European wine vintages including a number of 1982 First Growths, 1982 Chateau Petrus and an assortiment of 1978 Domaine de La Romanee Conti wines. Incensed by the lack of progress and the intransigence of the insurance company, the vendor sent the entire wine to auction – resulting in a memorable festive bidding frenzy and a benchmark precedent for future claims. While frozen damaged wine with minor cork protrusion is generally drinkable it seems to alter the wine. I recently tasted a number of premier and grand cru Burgundies from a similar and more costly event and there is no question some of the wines have lost freshness and energy.
The air-conditioner kicking into reverse cycle has happened on at least five occasions over the last twenty years converting cellars into wine saunas. Bottles take a while to heat up, so if it has happened for only a matter of hours it is usually the wine closest to the air-conditioner that can be profoundly affected. At worst heat can cook the wine and at relatively low heat loads cause the wine to expand, run up between the cork and the bottle neck and start leaking. There is no remedy to this problem. Heat affected wine is relatively easy to detect because of staining, the overall lacklustre sheen of the bottle and fill levels.
Poor ventilation or bad insulation is another cause for grief. I once found ten cases of 1976 Chateau d’Yquem in Vaucluse languishing in a broom cupboard – heat affected, mouldy and sweating away to oblivion. Flooding is an act of God. Sometimes water damage can be so minimal that it is not necessary to salvage value except for a few bottles. At its most cataclysmic labels can move off bottles or moulds can develop on labels, under capsules and even into the cork; creating a lucky dip wine cellar of great interest to bargain hunters but at vastly reduced price realizations.
Sometimes collectors and label hunters forget that wine is a drink. At its most extreme one person lost memory of the silver and gold ingots he put away behind his bottles. Having died a while earlier, it was only on removal of the cellar that these bars were discovered.
Wine cellars do need looking after. Even the best cellars will see corks blowing out for no obvious reason. Some vintages have a reputation for bad corks. 1976 Grange is an example. Cellars need to be turned over or inspected regularly –especially when the wines start to reach over a decade old. Hoarding wine – unless you are using the boxes as footings for your house - is probably one of the surest ways of setting yourself up for a fall.
My losing streak seems to have returned. Can someone tell me what is the value of an MW certificate? I am not sure whether to feel aggrieved or flattered but an unknown trophy hunter has rifled mine. Or maybe he just liked the frame?
By Andrew Caillard