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.

"Wine is a living, breathing thing," Gago said, while explaining why two bottles from the same vintage tasted differently. "Too many people hold on to wine for too long."

The idea that the older the wine, the better, is not true. At some point, Gago said, a wine passes its prime and should be drunk.

The first thing that Gago and his team look at when evaluating a bottle is the level of the wine. If the wine is lower than it should be, it means that air is getting in and wine is evaporating. For some bottles, that's all the examination that's needed to tell it's still good.

But for most others, the cork is removed, the wine is smelled and tasted. After the winemakers evaluate the bottle, the owner gets to sample the wine before it is resealed and goes back into the owner's cellar.

Gago said there is very minimal risk of ruining a wine by opening and recorking it the way he and his staff do.

"Wines that were recorked 16 years ago we often taste alongside wines at our museum and quite often there is no difference," he said.

Karlitz, whose company produces food and wine festivals and corporate events, first heard about the recorking clinics while at a festival in Aspen. Colo. For him, it seemed like a natural fit. Karlitz loves wine and built a two-story wine cellar in his New Jersey home that opens into his dining room. The cellar's design preserves the wine but also provides a way to showcase it.

So how large of a collection does he have?

"A lot. More than I can ever drink," Karlitz said. "I sort of wince when people ask me. I always say it's quality over quantity."

But just for the record, it's more than 5,000 bottles.

His first recorking clinic was 2003. He came back this year to check up on another set of bottles.

"You taste the collection. You see how your collection has aged," Karlitz said. "It's a conversation piece. It's now having a story to have while serving the wine."

At one point, he took a glass of the 1976 Grange just opened from his collection and carefully held it up to his nose and took a deep whiff.

"I just want to smell it. I don't need to try it," Karlitz said.

But he did try it and was very pleased, and then urged those around him to sample the wine as he talked about its flavor and body.

"Wine drinkers, wine collectors for the most part are a very fun, good group of people," Karlitz said. "I think it stems from ... they like to share wine with people who appreciate it. It's just a nice experience to hang out with them."