The very knowledgeable Evelyn Ignatow, certified sommelier and owner of Hyde Park Gourmet(2707 Erie Ave., 513-533-4329), recently invited me along as she assessed the value of an estate wine collection. With the executor, we went down into a musty cellar, bending to avoid old door jams. Behind some creaky doors, we finally located an astonishing stash of old wine.
Now, to understand what we found, you have to know that the great wineries of Bordeaux were classified into five "tiers" for an 1855 Paris World's Fair exhibition. The highest tier, the "first growths," contained just four producers: Haut-Brion, Margaux, Latour and Lafite-Rothschilds. (A century later, Mouton-Rothschilds was elevated from "second growth" to first, the only official change ever made to this categorization.) Today, these five wines are still among the most coveted (and expensive) on Earth, horded by collectors and prized for their ability to drink beautifully for many decades.
The person who assembled this collection clearly knew fine wine, because we found bottles of 1953, 1955, 1959 and 1961 Haut-Brion.
Fifty-year-old bottles of Lafite and Margaux were there, too, alongside other rarities, such as second-growth Bordeaux, older Grand Cru Burgundies (the world's best pinot noirs and chardonnays) and Sauternes (from Yquem, that revered producer of sweet wine), all covered in decades of dust. As a wine lover and collector, it was awesome to behold.
Awesome ... and awful, too, for nearly every bottle was in terrible condition. Corks had rotted through, spilling and spoiling the precious nectar within. The few that were still intact showed very low fill levels, and drip stains and pushed-up corks indicated exposure to excessive heat, a terrible enemy of wine.
Had these bottles been properly stored, the collection's value would have been immense. (Just one pristine bottle of 1953 Haut-Brion could bring $1,000 or more at auction!) But, with the condition issues we saw, the cellar was all but worthless -- the bottles good for little else but dressing a wine cellar with their famous labels.
I collect wine, too. I have several first-growth Bordeaux from the years in which my children were born, and we hope to drink them together -- God willing! -- on their wedding days. Other wines (vintage Ports, German Rieslings, some Grand Cru Burgundies and various California Cabs that might or might not go the distance) are stashed in my cellar, too.
When I got home, I told my wife that if I should die prematurely I wanted her to start drinking all that wine right away. "Don't hold anything back," I urged her. "Just drink it before it gets old and ruined and worthless."
If you have a collection, I recommend that you store it properly and make sure someone knows what to do with it when you die. If you don't, I've seen your cellar's future, and it isn't pretty.
Contact Michael Schiaparelli: firstname.lastname@example.org