Priceless or Worthless? High Stakes Wine Sipping

There they stood: bottles of wine neatly lined up one after another.

One dated back to 1968 and another to 1972.

In total, 55 bottles of red wine lined the table. In a moment, some of the top wine experts in the world would taste them to see if the wine was still good.

Some of the bottles were worth several thousand dollars. The wine experts could either certify the integrity of each bottle -- adding to its value -- or with just a few sips deem it virtually worthless.

Herb Karlitz stood nearby, not the least bit nervous. He brought just a sliver of his private wine collection to be tested. It might increase in value. It might not. But for Karlitz the bottles aren't an investment as much as something to enjoy.

"It's not that I'm collecting. You just start -- you love wine, so you buy a bottle," he said. "You just end up buying and collecting wines faster than you can drink them, which isn't the worst habit to have."

So as each bottle was uncorked his face didn't show the least bit of nervousness. In fact, he looked downright giddy.

As Karlitz explained, where else do you get to sample a few dozen of your favorite wines all at one time?

And if one is deemed bad -- luckily for Karlitz, only one should have been drunk sooner rather than later -- there is only a bit of disappointment.

But It's not like it's the end of the world. "It's just a bottle of wine," said Karlitz. "That's taking something that's fun too seriously."

A Special Event

Karlitz was part of a group of wine collectors invited to take part in a free special event hosted by Penfolds, the Australian winemaker.

Penfolds invited some of its top collectors -- and anybody else from the public who owned a bottle of its red wines 15 years or older -- to come to a New York hotel with their wine. Each bottle of Penfolds would be examined by chief winemaker Peter Gago and his staff. Many would be opened, tasted and then -- if still in good condition -- toped off and recorked.

"It's like giving the wine a new life," Karlitz said.

Each bottle deemed in good condition gets a numbered and signed label certifying it as passing the recorking event. A representative from Christie's auction house was also on hand to oversee the process and the certification.

"We've proven in many markets around the world that it actually adds value to the collection," Gago said. "People will pay more for a 1955 that's been through a clinic than an untouched '55."

Penfolds has been offering such clinics around the world since 1991. In those 16 years, more than 80,000 bottles have been recorked.

The North American clinics are held every other year, typically in two American cities and in Canada. This year's were in New York, Houston and Vancouver. Two years ago, it was New York, Chicago and Toronto. Events were also recently held in Hong Kong and Singapore.

Most of the bottles brought to the events are the Penfolds Grange, once called Penfolds Grange Hermitage. The wine is mostly shiraz, with a little bit of cabernet. A bottle of the latest vintage sells for about $250. But some older bottles have sold for much more. Less than a year ago, Christie's auctioned two bottles of 1971 Grange for $1,410.

A Living, Breathing Thing

The recorking events are a mix of education and marketing. Gago and his staff try to teach people about their own wines. But Penfolds also uses the time with some of its top collectors to showcase its latest vintages through a set of tastings.

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