Whether you’re just prone to clutter or an avid collector of wine or spirits, stumbling upon a forgotten bottle is not uncommon. It happens to wine and spirits fans alike, and can involve anything from a misplaced bottle of wedding whiskey to a vintage bottle of Champagne hiding in the weeds of your basement.
Chances are good that that rediscovered bottle is worth investigating. Depending on its age and state, it could be something truly special, maybe to the point of cracking it on your next anniversary or even taking it to auction — and going on vacation with the earnings.
So, do you sell? Do you pop it and enjoy? Might that old bottle be flawed altogether? We asked a few industry pros for some wisdom.
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If you found some wine…
Scott Torrence is a seasoned wine expert and founder of Chapter Four, and is the former senior wine specialist and VP of Christie’s North America. Over his many years in the trade, Torrence has brought many remarkable multi-million dollar wine collections to auction, and he tells us that forgotten bottles are actually pretty common.
“These are often bottles of modest initial pricing or gifted bottles that are buried in a cellar and overlooked, as its owner’s tastes may have evolved to finer selections,” he says. They get lost or misplaced, and typically go bad. “Most quality wines between $25–$75 should optimally be consumed within their first 10 years of cellarage,” Torrence warns.
When you do find that bottle, one dilemma is whether to drink it yourself or sell that experience to somebody else. Motives to sell could include everything from unlocking value or repurposing funds to simply getting rid of something you don’t covet as much as others. Either way, a reseller is a solid way to establish proper valuation and terms of sale, Torrence says.
“However, not all resale outlets are equal. There are meaningful differences between retail outlets versus auction outlets,” he explains. “A local merchant that specializes in ‘old and rare wine’ or similar is likely to have access to buyers who will trust the merchant’s selections and can tailor offers to buyers that meet their needs.”
There’s also the quantity element. “A merchant can also offer single units of a larger set, thereby allowing buyers to commit to a bottle or two as opposed to a full case,” he adds. Torrence says auctions function more like a wholesale market.
If you are sitting on some serious quality, though, provenance becomes an issue as merchants and auction houses tend to require proof of purchase. “Informed buyers interested in wines of quality regularly want to know the history of a bottle’s ownership,” Torrence says. “This is particularly important for wines over 20 years old, and is often requested on more expensive purchases. The ability to honestly and accurately describe or prove the provenance of a collection can be crucial to obtaining a maximum value on your sale.”
Torrence adds that just evaluating the original price paid or the wine’s appellation is probably not enough. Due diligence comes in talking to an area buyer. “My preference is to rely on your local merchant to advise you, as they often sell these wines and have buyers looking for back vintages of them long after they have been released to the market,” he says. “A seller may get 60 cents on the dollar for such items, but at least you didn’t have to pour it out or give it away.”
If you found a spirit…
We’ve heard stories about old Champagne and cherished bottles from famous Bordeaux houses fetching high prices, but what about spirits? Leo Gibson, cofounder of BHAKTA, a brand that specializes in aged Armagnac, says the category offers three things that can attract collectors and soaring price tags.
Older bottles, of course, offer history in a bottle. Bottles from shuttered distilleries are attractive, too, as Gibson points out they have a certain romantic cachet. Lastly, limited releases can earn you a sum, especially when part of a series. This is something whiskey fans know especially well — just ask the Pappy crowd.
“Collectors who are late arrivals to the category or brands who have begun amassing a full collection of the series are often willing to pay jaw-dropping prices to go back and complete a set,” he says.
Allen Katz, a spirits expert and the founder of New York Distilling Company, says the most important thing you can do is comparison shop. “There are many good resources,” he says. “Just remember, most are looking for their cut as well.”
Katz suggests drink brokerage site Bottle Blue Book. “They buy and sell a whole host of whiskeys and spirits and wine collections and have a pulse on up-to-date prices for many vintage-y items,” he says. Whiskey clubs are another option. Katz advises starting locally as there are many, and that way you can connect with interested collectors.
Like Torrence, Katz says there’s no overvaluing a trusted retailer, as they often have experienced buyers who can assess value. “Finally, once you have an appraisal, whether for one bottle or a collection, consider insuring it,” he says.
How can you tell if it’s flawed?
That bottle may have gone MIA for a reason. Or, perhaps, it was stored improperly and is now past its prime. There are a few things you can look for when trying to determine if a wine or spirit is injured beyond repair without even opening the bottle, which can save you the time and effort of selling somebody on a tainted product.
With wine, Torrence says there are some visual clues to look for. Seepage is a big one and can indicate heat damage or cork failure. Then there’s the color of the wine, which changes as it ages and oxidizes. “For white wines, this means color changes that shift from light golden to amber. For red wine, this may mean changes from dark red to garnet or partridge eye,” he says.
Torrence notes that this can take a highly trained eye but even non-somms can do a comparative analysis if there are multiple bottles (or even taste one).
With spirits, Gibson advises to look for flaws in the seal, which tend to show up via low fill levels or stains on the label. His colleague at BHAKTA, brand CEO Sean O’Rourke, says spirit bottles are rarely corked as they might be in wine, and your best bet is to check in with your online community and trusted shop managers. “Spirits will be more consistent and less variable in a given production run than wine and a bottling reputation should be pretty well documented,” he says.
In the end, these bottles are meant to be enjoyed in good company, whether by you or somebody you sold to. “We can’t take our collections to our grave,” O’Rourke says.