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That Old Bottle In the Basement -- What's It Worth?

May 17th 2020

That Old Bottle In the Basement -- What's It Worth?

We’ve all heard stories of the dusty, cobwebbed bottle of wine, long forgotten, that turns out to be worth a fortune. Any truth to those tales?

Sorry to say, most bottles of wine that turn up after decades of storage aren’t going to make anyone rich. Only a small percentage of wine is so-called “investment-grade,” meaning that it will appreciate significantly in value over time. Also, too often the environment in which the wine has been stored is poor. Fine wine ages long and well in a cool, dark, relatively humid place. Prolonged storage at room temperature or higher will prematurely age the wine, eventually spoiling it. The value of an old wine depends a great deal on its “provenance,” which means its ownership history and storage conditions.

To learn what your bottle is worth, take it to a fine wine retailer and ask for an opinion. A good wine merchant should be able to give you an approximate value and suggest how to dispose of it. You can also plug the wine’s name and vintage into an Internet search engine and see if any values come up. Wine auction houses are another avenue. Butterfields of San Francisco (www.butterfields.com) and The Chicago Wine Company (www.tcwc.com) run fine wine auctions and post prices on their websites. You can contact them about the value of the wines you may be interested in selling. Other auction houses include Sotheby’s (www.sothebys.com) and Christie’s (www.christies.com).

Be aware that it’s not easy for an individual without a liquor license to sell one or two bottles of wine. Most auction houses have minimum consignment requirements. If the liquor laws in your state permit, a retailer may be able to take your bottles on consignment.

Feeling generous? The easiest way to realize some value from a bottle or two of old wine is to donate them to a charity auction for a tax deduction. That way you benefit, and so does a worthy cause.

Time in a Bottle When Should I Drink My Wine?

"Vintage" is one of those wine terms that seem to come with a lot of baggage, but it doesn't have to be that way. Two common myths concerning vintage are: The older the vintage, the better the wine. Conversely, younger vintages can't be good.

Both of these myths do nothing more than encourage people to save their wine for the perfect occasion when the Moon is in Venus. When they finally get around to dusting off the bottle and pulling the cork with great anticipation, they are often disappointed by what's in the bottle. Perhaps it turned to vinegar or it oxidized along the way. Chances are it's simply dull and merely a shadow of what would have been had the wine been enjoyed sooner.

Vintage, very simply, is the year on the bottle. Specifically it is the year the grapes were harvested to produce the wine in the bottle. Yes, there are good years and bad years in terms of weather that will produce better grapes, that in turn, will produce better wine. However, the truth is that more than 90% of all the wines produced in the world are meant to be consumed within one year, and less than 1% of all wines are intended to be aged for more than 10 years.

Unless you are a wine collector filling your cellar with age-worthy wines such as the great châteaux of Bordeaux, top producers of California Cabernet Sauvignon, and fine vintage Port, think of the vintage like the "Born On" designation that appears on the side of a beer label to show the freshness of the product. Most people prefer wine while it is fresh and lively, so pull the cork and enjoy the bottle within a few years. Or, use the general guidelines below. Please note that even by following these rules of thumb, you may find certain wines that could last longer, so don't automatically toss a bottle if you unearth one in the back of your closet that looks like it's past its prime. Uncork the wine and taste for yourself.

A few generalities may help you decide when to drink your wine.

  • Simple, everyday wines--your basic Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Merlot--are meant to be consumed upon release or shortly after.
  • Big, full-bodied wines last longer than light-bodied wines.
  • Red wines generally last longer/age better than white wines.
  • For wine produced in countries that have a distinct system of quality levels, the better the quality level of a wine within a category (for example, French Chablis (good), French Chablis Premier Cru (better), French Chablis Grand Cru (best)) the longer it will last/age.
  • High alcohol wines such as red Zinfandel from California, Amarone from Italy, and Shiraz from Australia, and Rhône wines from France, will last longer.
  • Better quality producers/wineries generally make wines that have the potential to last longer and age. Many of these wineries produce well-known inexpensive wines for everyday drinking and more expensive bottlings ($20 and up) that should last longer--perfect for more special meals.
  • Dessert wines from better producers all over the world have the potential to last longer and age due to a high level of residual sugar and a higher alcohol content.