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Drinking Out Loud

The Truth About Old Wines

Why absolutely nobody is an expert when tasting old wines

Matt Kramer
Posted: January 7, 2014

Last month a federal jury found 37-year-old Rudy Kurniawan guilty of fraud for selling counterfeit wines and defrauding a finance company. It was such an open-and-shut case that the jury deliberated for a mere hour and 45 minutes before returning with a guilty verdict. The Feds literally had the goods on Kurniawan, having seized in a raid on his home all sorts of paraphernalia (old bottles, labels, corks, stamps, capsules) used to create counterfeit bottles.

The average person reading about the Kurniawan case can be forgiven for asking the obvious question: What about the wine in the bottle? Surely so-called wine experts can tell the difference between the real thing and the phony?

Well, obviously they can’t. For reasons I’ll get to in a moment, it’s nowhere near as easy or simple to confirm the authenticity of an old wine as it is the authenticity of its packaging, as was amply demonstrated in the Kurniawan trial.

The anticipatory excitement of tasting old wines, like the prospect of sex, seems to cloud people’s minds. They look past, or forgive, all sorts of sins or deficiencies. Folks become remarkably accommodating. I’ve witnessed this repeatedly over the years when tasting old wines with fellow wine lovers. So smitten are they by the historicity and venerability of the wine in front of them that they seem to lose all powers of discrimination.

For those in the wine business—especially among auction houses, where such wines mean millions of dollars of business—another kind of generosity comes into play. The auction houses constantly proclaim their vigilance in identifying fakery and substandard bottles, but the Kurniawan case rather dramatically gives the lie to that.

Worth noting is that even when the old wines being auctioned are authentic, it doesn’t necessarily mean that what you’re buying is sure to deliver an “authentic” experience. Many of the old wines I’ve tasted in people’s homes—often purchased at auction—were tired, sighing their last gasps of fruit and flavor. Simply put, they had not been well-stored. When you think about it, pristine storage is no mean feat for a wine with 50 or 80 years of age on it. That would mean it was consistently in an environment of 52° F to 55° F, year-round. What are the odds of that over a half-century or more?

“Well-stored” is a generous notion in the auction trade. I have a friend who, when he was living in Florida, sold a large batch of California trophy wines to a prominent auction house.

“Did they inspect your cellar or ask for sample wines?” I asked.

“Not at all,” he replied. “I told them they were stored in a temperature-controlled space. But they never actually saw it or even asked for a photo. They just asked for a list of the wines. When they saw what I had, they said, ‘Ship ’em on up.’”

I myself was on the receiving end of just such easygoingness. A well-known auction house was listing a case of 1990 Stony Hill Chardonnay. Having recently tasted that same wine at the winery, I knew it to be stunningly good, still vibrant and fresh-tasting.

Because I knew the auctioneer, I called him to confirm the provenance of the wine. Was it well-cellared? “Perfectly cellared,” he replied confidently. So I bid on that case and bought it. The wines arrived. The bottles looked impeccable, with immaculate labels and high fills. Yet the wine in every bottle was oxidized and undrinkable.

All of which brings me back to why absolutely nobody is an expert when tasting old wines. The truth of old wines is that they usually are “blurry” experiences.

I’ll never forget tasting—for the first and only time in my life—a 1945 Romanée-Conti, of which only 600 bottles were produced. The host insisted it was the real thing and he’s a pro at this old-wine game, possessing a fabulous cellar chockablock with wines going back to the early 1800s.

Was that '45 Romanée-Conti thrilling? Sorry to say, it wasn’t. It was an old wine and much of its life force was already spent. Maybe a different bottle would have been more vibrant.

Even someone who has tasted a dozen different bottles of the same 50-year-old wine has really never had the same wine twice. The odds of tasting a dozen examples of the same 50-year-old wine that are in equally pristine condition is so slim as to verge on the impossible. Add to that the very real vagaries of uneven cork quality and you can easily see why no two old wines are alike.

I’ll give you an example. Not long ago, a wealthy wine-loving friend served at a dinner he hosted a 1961 Château Léoville Las Cases. Now, I’m no Bordeaux guy, although over the years I’ve had my unfair share of big Bordeaux names, including several from the fabled 1961 vintage.

But when I tasted this '61 Léoville Las Cases I was bowled over. I was hard-pressed to recall ever tasting a classed-growth at the half-century mark that was this fresh, this precise-tasting, this vibrant. It was so fresh-tasting, in fact, that it made me suspicious.

I gingerly raised this astonishment as diplomatically as I could with the host, who is a guy who well knows the wiggles of the wine world. He laughed and said that he agreed. But he knew that it was indeed the real thing. Or at least, he said, as likely to be the real thing as one could hope to get.

“How’s that?” I asked.

“Because I bought the wine directly from Château Léoville Las Cases and had it air-freighted over,” he replied.

Now you know why there are no experts when it comes to old wines, never mind whether they are genuine or counterfeit. There’s simply too little consistency from one old bottle to the next to ensure the kind of certainty that is so (wrongly) expected of “experts.”

If that unbelievably fresh '61 Léoville Las Cases was the real thing, is anything less vibrant and vital therefore a fraud? Of course not.

Confirming the authenticity of an old wine is far from a sure thing, no matter how many times you’ve tasted the vintage. At best, it’s a good, educated guess. At worst, you’re simply too awed by the label, its rarity, its age or its astronomical cost. (In 2011, a bottle of 1945 Romanée-Conti sold at auction for $123,889.)

This is why, no matter how experienced you may be, buying and drinking old wine is a lot like falling in love: You hope it’s the real thing and you pray you’re not a fool.

Louis Robichaux
Highland Village, Texas —  January 7, 2014 12:35pm ET
Terrific post. Thanks Matt!
Mark Krieger
Lincoln, NE —  January 7, 2014 4:15pm ET
Excellent article. This is the sort of writing that has me turning to your column first each month in the magazine. Keep it coming!
Sergio Ortiz
México City, México  —  January 8, 2014 9:00am ET
It came to my mind when I tried this 1945 Rioja wine. The owner claimed it was spectacular. For me it was that "blurry" experience you said.
Great post!
Juan Gonzalez
Miami, Florida USA —  January 9, 2014 9:46am ET
Matt, an insightful article as usual. Keep them coming. Unfortunately, short of air-freighting bottles directly from the chateau, I think the only way to assure yourself you are drinking the real thing is to buy it young and age it yourself.
Ed Frankoski
Huntington, NY —  January 9, 2014 3:27pm ET
Mr. Juan Gonzalez has a very good idea. Buy wines young and age them for ourselves. But, not to assure their authenticity. Can't young wines be counterfeit too? Rather, enjoy the pleasure of being with the wine while it grows up and matures. Buy a suitable quantity to store, sample the stock periodically, take good notes and compare your experiences over a lifetime. Explore how much your wine changes and in what ways. Determine what time horizon is necessary to mellow those individual layers on the nose and palate; to bring one on stronger than another. Seek out the zenith for each bottling you have stored. Follow your wine into it's decline. Then, you can think back and remember the whole life story of your wine as you and your wine have now become old together. That's a much better way to live than chasing the legends of old wines that died long ago. In vino enim est vita!

Cheers, EJF
Mike Olszewski
Newcastle, WA —  January 9, 2014 5:01pm ET
Bulls Eye again Matt! Your anecdote on tasting the 1961 Leoville Las Cases stirred a couple thoughts. I remember many years ago attending a wine dinner/tasting in Seattle hosted by Madame de Lencquesaing of Pichon Lalande. All the wines served that evening had been air-shipped directly from the Chateau’s cellar. One of the wines was the 1983, a bottle of which we had opened just a few nights before. In comparison, my bottle, albeit excellent, was starting to show its age as one would expect of a Bordeaux at around 10 years of age. Whereas, the wine from the Chateau was amazingly fresh and fruity, showing no signs of age and almost screaming barrel sample. This got me to wondering, that in addition to storage conditions, how much of a factor is the effect of repeated transportation (particularly slow boats across the water) in the ultimate variability in bottles of the same wine?
Christian Wyser-pratte
Ossining, NY —  January 10, 2014 2:38am ET
I have bought at auction and I have sold at auction, going back to the days when I lived in Chicago and The Chicago Wine Company controlled the auction business because it was illegal in New York. No Christie's, Sotheby's, Zachy's, Acker, Morrell, etc. I never had a bad bottle from TCWC. Oh, I think perhaps a few half-bottles of 1974 Martha's Vineyard were a bit long in the tooth because I had not adequately allowed for the faster aging of a half bottle. But overall, I was pleased with my purchases, all long gone now. I especially remember the 1985 Ramonet Batard Montrachet I bought on the floor during a visit to Chicago on business. It was at its best when I consumed the last bottle in 2005. Of course, it had been in my cellar for seventeen years of its life.

Then came Hurricane Katrina in 2005, and one started to hear stories of wines that had spent some time underwater hitting the auction market. That's also when the market started to go crazy. I dropped out, and did not return to the auction market until the Charlie Trotter auction at Christie's. I'd had quite a few of those wines in his restaurant, and I was comfortable with their provenance and storage from the moment they entered his control. I have sampled nearly all of them, and they are perfect. But I did make the mistake of extrapolating from that success, and participating in a later auction where some 1995 Rapet Corton Charlemagne was on offer. The first bottle was garbage, dark beyond its years, and went straight down the drain. I assumed it was a storage problem, and opened another bottle a few days later expecting very little. It was lovely. If my 50% hit rate continues, I'll have bought this wine for $90 per sound bottle, a fairly good arrangement. But I've learned my lesson, and will not push my luck. That kind of bottle variation isn't something one can feel good about.
Brian Adams
Glenview, IL —  January 10, 2014 11:20am ET
Alas, I've been guilty of having blurred vision when tasting older wines. In my wine circles, we frequently find ourselves trying to like them more often than not, the 'Wow' factor diluted by our collective, unspoken desire not to be disappointed. Thanks to Matt Kramer for reminding us that we're the rule rather than the exception.
K & L Wine Merchants
San Francisco —  January 13, 2014 2:20pm ET
Matt:

As always, thoughtful, interesting and perceptive. Old wine can be fascinating, but provenance is the sin qua non for a good experience, IMHO.

Cheers,

Keith Wollenberg
Peter Vangsness
East Longmeadow, MA —  January 13, 2014 2:40pm ET
Matt,

I have always considered either buying or drinking older wines a complete crap-shoot. Provenance aside, the only true test is when it hits the glass and then my lips!!!
I still buy them, as I am an eternal optimist and am most enamored of aged Bordeaux or CA Cabs.
Stefano Giunti
Milan, Italy —  January 14, 2014 8:45am ET
Great article.
Since I and my wife love blind tasting, sometimes it happened to us to drink the same wine twice, first time normal tasting, second time blind tasting. The notes we wrote were often different, if not completely different.
When we decide to drink old wines, one of us "blinds" some bottles and the other one choses one of them.
Of course we expect to drink something special but at least we don't know neither the age nor the wine.
Matthew Hayes
France —  January 14, 2014 12:36pm ET
Whatever, it is still a huge hit to the pride of many of Kurniawan's uber-rich, uber-spending customers and, hmm, victims.

Money does not necessarily by you connoisseurship. Nor taste, nor reason.

Did nobody wonder where the huge The Cellar collections had been hiding for the last fifty years?

I once served a "connoisseur" client a bottle of Hillside Select 1994 blind. Admittedly, I live in Burgundy, but his guess at Gevrey Chambertin was way off the mark...
Bernard Leveille
Winnipeg, Canada —  January 18, 2014 9:16am ET
Thanx, Matt.
I too turn to your page first for insightful commentary.
Came thru again.
Daniel E Salazar
Lawrence, NJ, USA —  January 19, 2014 11:57am ET
Thanks Matt

Great post. While science would have a hard time to authenticate an old wine, I believe one could determine the extent of oxidation by analytical methods. I don't know if such a kit exists and I'll do some research.

Dan

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