In June 2004, a single bottle of Château Cheval-Blanc 1928 was put up for auction by Christie's in New York as part of a $600,000 parcel. The bottle had been recorked in 1980 by Whitwhams, a London wine merchant no longer in business. The original cork and cap were attached in a pouch to the bottle, as was Whitwhams' practice.
"That bottle failed to attract any bids," said Richard Brierley, head of North American wine sales at the New York office of Christie's.
That failure pointed up the troublesome issue of having fine old bottles reconditioned by anyone other than the original bottler. Once, it had been a popular practice. "We were the pioneers in recorking wine about 20 years ago," said Eric de Rothschild, owner of Château Lafite Rothschild. "We sent our cellarmaster around the world to recork because I was getting very aggravated at our wines not being recorked at the right time."
No longer. Lafite Rothschild and most other Bordeaux first-growths, as well as Burgundy's Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, now routinely refuse requests to recondition old bottles, which can include replacing the label, foil capsule and cork. It was often a thorny process.
"If we felt the wine was authentic, but didn't conform to the same vintage from our own cellars, we would return the bottles stripped of label and capsule," said Frédéric Ardouin, technical director for first-growth Château Latour. "If we felt that the wine was not authentic, we poured it down the drain." Unhappy owners, Ardouin added, sometimes insisted that "'it was not my bottle you emptied, it was someone else's.'"
In the worst case, counterfeiters of trophy wines could attempt to legitimize their fake bottles by asking to have them reconditioned. "We decided that reconditioning is a service to thieves," Ardouin said. Five years ago, Latour halted the practice.
The situation changes, of course, when the wine comes from the château's own cellars, where old bottles are regularly checked and reconditioned as needed. "In fall 2003, Christie's sold a huge cache directly from Latour, going back to the 1890 vintage," Brierley said. "Those wines, reconditioned at the château and with a cast-iron provenance, sold at four or five times the market price. Between those wines and the Cheval-Blanc '28 that didn't sell, you have the extremes of recorking."
As for the recorking of the Château Palmer 1961 in Macao, Brierley said, "There were many benefits to how it was done there. You had a large collection of the wine that had been looked after by Mahler-Besse, reconditioned by Palmer and topped off with the same wine, which is always the key. The life of those wines has been prolonged."