Wine: Advice for the new collector

Serious wine collectors find better and older vintages at auction.

By Mark J. Solomon

Wine has been around for over 8,000 years and is deeply entwined in most of the world’s major civilizations.

Despite a long wine-making history, it was not until the 1730s, with advances in glass bottle making and cork enclosures, that people began to age and store their product. And this is how the first collections got started.

Today, an untold number of people around the globe collect for both enjoyment and as a rewarding venture. Collectors are more common than you think. If you happen to have an extra bottle or two squirreled away in your basement that you have been saving for some special occasion, then congratulations, technically speaking you too are a collector.
Of course, there are more serious collectors who love to drink wine but also buy and sell it as an investment, much like paintings from famous artists or period furniture from well-known craftsmen.
If you happen to find yourself developing from a novice into a serious collector, then there is basically no way around it, you will need to start purchasing at auction. The sorts of wine typically found at auction, especially when considering the better and older vintages, are just not available on the shelves of your average retail shop. Also as important, one can collect wine at less cost at auction as wine auction prices generally fall below retail prices.

Bidding for the first time at an auction may seem like an intimidating process. Having been on both sides of the proverbial auction stand, here are a few pieces of advice that might make your initial auction experiences become much more successful and enjoyable:

Wine: Find the Value

The majority of apprehension I experienced personally while attending wine auctions for the first time derived from the fear of over-bidding due to either not having a good understanding of market values or how the condition of bottles can impact value.

Thanks in part to the magic of the Internet, there are several wine auction databases ( to name one) that report recent auction prices from major wine auction houses worldwide. Consequently, discerning a general ballpark figure one should pay for a particular bottle of wine actually takes remarkably little guesswork.

Understand Bottle Conditions

Just like almost everything else purchased at auction, the condition of a selection of bottles can dramatically increase or decrease the final hammer price. And since wine auction databases generally do not readily convey condition information, arriving at more precise estimated values for lots of bottles can quickly become more of an art form than a science.

Bottles in pristine condition often demand higher prices, while bottles with flaws are often commensurate with reduced prices. Although this might seem like an obvious statement, it is important to note that condition issues are not all alike regarding the impact they have on perceived bottle value.

Wine: Condition of Label

Personally speaking, it does not matter to me whether the label, that little square piece of paper glued to the wine bottle, is in pristine condition. As long as I can read the label well enough to accurately understand its contents, I am usually not too concerned about purchasing that bottle.

Having said this, some collectors care very much about what the label looks like, especially if they are either purchasing as a commercial entity (like a restaurant) to serve to customers or buying as an investment to be sold at some later time. Because there is a demand for spotless labels, less than pristine examples can knock 10 to 15 percent off the final hammer price.

Wine: Fill Level

Bottles not kept in cooler, humidity controlled storage conditions, over time, can have an adverse impact on a wine’s taste. Additionally, wines not stored well over time can detrimentally affect the overall sturdiness of the bottle. Since cork is a natural wood product that does not create a perfect seal, all wines will show some evaporation inside the bottle over time.

That being said, bottles stored under imperfect conditions tend to show a faster loss of liquid. Ullage levels (i.e., the air space between the cork and the liquid) tend to be a good gauge of drinkability. As a general rule, top or upper-shoulder fill levels are acceptable for wines 30-years or older. However, top or upper-shoulder fill levels are deemed unacceptable for wines less than 20-years-old (where one would expect close to base-neck fills or better).

A lower-than-expected fill level can easily reduce a bottle’s value by 20 percent but even as high as 50 percent depending on the seriousness of the flaw. Fortunately, most wine auction houses will not sell bottles with fill levels deemed too divergent from the normal expected variation for age.

Wine: Condition of Capsule and Cork

Corks have been around for a long time and, considering that cork is merely a type of wood, make a remarkably sturdy enclosure. In fact, here at the auction house it is not unusual to see a 100-year-old bottle with its seal still intact. Having said this, given enough time all corks will eventually fail.

And when corks begin to fail there are typically some telltale signs. Most notably, there is seepage around the capsule, or the foil-like covering around the top the bottle. While bottles with seepage are often still drinkable, over time the probability becomes less so as more oxygen outside the bottle begins to interact chemically with the wine contained within. Signs of seepage can notably reduce the value and a reputable wine auction house will disclose to the buyer whether this flaw exists as well as its magnitude.

As with wine bottles containing lower-than-expected fill levels, most wine auction houses will not auction bottles with degrees of seepage thought to warrant a bottle undrinkable.

Merely by using a wine auction price database and understanding a few key concepts regarding wine bottle condition statements, your initial wine auction experiences should become much more rewarding and gratifying.

Mark J. Solomon is the Fine Wine Auction Director at Leland Little Auctions.