Advice on Buying Old and Rare Bottles from a Wine Shop

Red Wine Decanter

When families gather, oenophiles typically react in one of two ways.

We hoard the good stuff and serve up some inexpensive crowd pleasers, or we generously open our cellars and share our good fortune. Maybe we even go out and buy some special wines as gifts, or to pair with a special meal at home.

This piece isn’t going to provide guidance on selecting cheap wine; it’s going to help you make sure you’re happy with your splurge. Even if you’re a hoarder planning to dig into your stash, some of the advice might still be relevant.

When buying an expensive bottle of wine, know your merchant. If they’re local, you should be able to see how they store their wines. Are they kept in a temperature-controlled room or cellar, or do the bottles hang out at room temperature for months before being sold?

I’ve been in entire stores that were air-conditioned to 55 degrees and others that had no air-conditioning. Take it from me, the sight of numerous vintages of Moulin Touchais, back to the legendary ’47 and ’59, oozing amber liquid from under the capsule is nauseating.

So check the condition of the bottle. Reject wines with visible signs of leakage or excessive ullage (space between the cork and the surface of the liquid contents). Leakage is most often associated with exposure to high temperatures, while large ullages suggest a greater chance of oxidation.

Ask about the store’s return policy. Pretty much every wine shop will accept returns and offer store credit for corked wines, but what about wines that are otherwise out of condition, like if a wine is oxidized, “cooked” or prematurely aged?

Take it from me, the sight of numerous vintages of Moulin Touchais, back to the legendary ’47 and ’59, oozing amber liquid from under the capsule is nauseating.

Particularly for older wines, ask the retailer for details about where they’ve come from and how they were previously stored. If any of the answers seem evasive or ill informed, it’s clearly a case of buyer beware, particularly since wine fraud has become a major issue.

How You Can Spot Fake Wines

Once you’ve got that special bottle home (or have pulled it from your cellar), you can enhance your enjoyment of it by properly decanting it, if necessary (to remove sediment or aerate the wine), and serving it at the proper temperature. Ice-cold whites won’t display their true array of aromas and flavors, but equally bad are too-warm reds, which often show their alcohol.

Recommended Sources

These U.S. retailers have all worked with the consultants at and are good bets when it comes to purchasing old and rare bottles. 
Crush Wine & Spirits, New York City
Hart Davis Hart Wine Co., Chicago
K&L Wine Merchants, Los Angeles,
Redwood City, San Francisco
Morrell, New York City
Sherry-Lehmann Wine & Spirits, New York City
The Bounty Hunter Rare Wine & Spirits, Napa
Wally’s, Los Angeles

And don’t neglect your stemware, which is a common cause for wines not showing as well as expected. Especially if you have glasses reserved for special occasions, take the extra time to wash, rinse and dry them thoroughly before pouring them full of something that costs $10 or more per ounce. There’s nothing worse than Screaming Eagle that smells like dusty cupboards or grand cru Burgundy that tastes like dish detergent.

Published on November 28, 2016
Topics: Wine Collecting