It never ceases to amaze me seeing the range of great and not so great wines sold on eBay and/or other internet auction sites every day. There are a few basic things that any wine buyer who purchases wine over the internet should be aware of. Usually a little bit of common sense can go a long way in getting yourself a gem instead of a lemon.
One of the greatest misconceptions that the average person starting their own very 1st cellar is that 'the older a wine is, the better it is'. I have seen it time and time again, people paying excessively ridiculous amounts of money for a bottle of wine because of its 'age' and/or 'brand' without the slightest consideration of thinking "How did this bottle of wine end up looking like this?”And "Where has it been these past 30+ years?" Some of these wines look like they have survived a bombing campaign through World War II! Disintegrating labels being held on the bottle with 'sticky tape', the level of the wine 2/3rds of the bottle's original fill, the advertiser's spiel is "Rare Bottle, Great Vintage, and Must Buy!”
Most wouldn't look twice buying even a current vintage of a bottle of wine in this sort of condition for $15, yet they would pay hundreds of dollars for a 30 year old bottle of say 'Grange Hermitage' that has obviously been neglected through the years and serves no purpose but to pour down the sink to remove it from circulation as to not taint the reputation of a great wine.
I am writing this short guide to give buyers a little insight on what some not so honest "Premium Wine Retailers" don't want them to know! I have been retailing and collecting premium Australian and Italian reds over 25 years, and have seen my fair share of those I call "shonky donkeys". These are usually retailers who don't put the time, effort and experience into tasting and researching their wines before sourcing product and then flogging them on the internet for ridiculously inflated market prices. Thankfully most are doing the right thing by their customers and it is only a minority that buyers need to be aware of.
There are books written on the subject but here are a few of my tips to avoid getting caught in buying an inferior bottle of premium wine.
1. The condition of a wine is usually reflected by its external appearance. Consider that if a bottle of wine is left undisturbed in minimal locations e.g. over 30 years old, it should appear to be reasonably as it was when it was bottled. Signs of severely damaged, torn, mouldy or missing labels represent excessive handling, poor storage temperatures and/or humidity. If the level of the wine is also very low e.g. below top of shoulder, this would further compound the expectation that the wine may not be drinkable. When you are purchasing a bottle of wine over the internet, look at the age of the wine, the labels and capsules, the fill and general appearance. If all these pictures are not available to you, request them from the seller before buying the product. The price you usually pay for the wine should reflect 'the risk' that 'you' the buyer are taking in purchasing a wine in such a condition. E.g. I would pay around $180 for a bottle of Grange 1990 with a completely damaged label and a good fill, whereas I would pay $600 for a bottle of Grange 1990 with a perfect label and perfect fill.
2. Confirm from the seller that the picture that is displayed on the internet is actually the picture of the product you are purchasing. I have seen numerous listings on the internet of advertised bottles using generic advertising bottle shots taken from another source. There are a number of eBay sellers using the same photo of bottles on numerous listings. I believe this to be a deceptive practice as you are purchasing a consumable product which its value and quality is greatly dependant on its correct storage and handling. To provide a generic advertising image for the product should alert the buyer that the retailer has not gone to the trouble to disclose the true condition of the product. I believe that generic advertising shots of products can only be used if the product is absolutely identical to the image being advertised. Look at the bottle shots and see if the label detail (such as the vintage) matches the description of the wine being advertised or auctioned.
3. Do your research through the internet before placing bids for a bottle of wine. When you carry out this research, again use the criteria of examining the condition of the wine before assuming that a particular brand or vintage has the advertised or market value. Markets for premium wines rise and fall due to demand, production, accolades, and economic conditions, so it is worth noting the detail of 'when' the wine may have sold for that 'record price'. Note. Restaurant wine lists are almost always inflated to 50-150%+. It is rare for a restaurant to advertise a wine at retail or below retail market prices.
4. Great vintage years in one region do not necessarily mean great vintage years everywhere. Wines around the world are all usually affected by 'microclimates'. Microclimates are climates unique to a particular area of vineyard depending on such factors as aspect, altitude, hills/mountains/trees (wind breaks) and coastlines. Research your wines specifically to its region when considering vintages. It has been recorded that some vineyards experience record conditions in an area where others less than one kilometre away, totally fail.
5. Great wines were not made to be kept forever. I have collected my cellar over twenty five years so that I could enjoy drinking some of my wines as well as on-selling some as investments. My cellar is always evolving with new releases being introduced and older wines being drunk and or sold to reinvest in other greats. Whatever the reason for buying rare, premium wines, one should always remember that a wine has a certain window of time when it is at its optimum and should be drunk. After that window expires, the wine will deteriorate quite rapidly. It is therefore very important to purchase wines that are in good condition and that have been cellared long term correctly. E.g. A few days of excessive heat to a bottle of when can accelerate its aging by one or more years. It should also be noted that most modern wines are made to be drunk early (average 3-7 years). This is mainly due to economic reasons and that most public wine companies brief winemakers to produce styles that can be 'drunk now'.
6. Cellaring white wines? Generally, cellaring white wines should be carefully researched both through the history of the style and brand, the winemaker's tasting notes and relevant vintage report. All cellared wines both red & white have significant changes in their structures and characters when aged. Particularly white wines such as Rieslings, Semillons and Chardonnays can change from fresh, vibrant, and crisp fruit driven styles, to fat, buttery, secondary characters. It is basically a preference of taste whether you enjoy aged white wines, but before buying an aged white wine, do your homework! There is probably only a handful or two of Australian whites which will cellar long term if cellared under the correct conditions. Not having the bottle physically in front of you to judge its condition is a bit of a risk as many whites undergo oxidation with no cork leakage and with perfect labels and capsules. The pale glass used to show off the colour of a young bottle of white also allows light to deteriorate the wine if stored on a retailer's shelf under light. Some white wines from the early 1970's and 1980's were sealed in stelvin screw tops rather than traditional corks. Many of these wines such as Rieslings and Semillons have survived today and show beautiful aged characters without the volatility of some younger aged wines sealed with corks. Without writing a book on the subject, you can generally make an assumption that an old Riesling or Semillon bottled with a stelvin screw top would carry less of a risk of being effected by oxidation, and no risk of cork taint (which only comes from natural cork).
I hope these general notes above will make new people buying premium wines more aware of what to look for when making a purchase on eBay or through a retail outlet.
Happy eBaying! Cheers.