Living Vicariously as Ancient Wines Come to Auction

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Nick Antonaccio
Nick Antonaccio

Are you the adventurous wine consumer who is constantly on the lookout for new wines? Or are you the steadfast consumer who finds a wine you like and heads straight for the shelf or display where it’s located in your local wine shop with no forethought?

This week’s column is not for the latter readers. Yet, once in a while every wine consumer gets a bit adventurous. For me, it’s living vicariously through the wine auction newsletters to which I subscribe. Scanning through listings of expensive bottles of rare French or Italian wines available at auctions sets me into an alternative reality of wine collectors who purchase such high-end wines as a hobby, typically for bragging rights among their friends.

The question of the provenance (the source and aging history) of these wines is always a question in my mind, as is the condition of the wine bottle and its contents. These factors will influence the asking prices of auctioned wines.

I came across an account of wines that are coming to auction in a few weeks. Let’s evaluate these wines as a vain, wealthy collector might. Living vicariously in this manner may offer an insight into that rarefied air of the one-percenters.

To my knowledge, this is one of the most unusual lots of wine ever offered at a public auction. In past auctions, centuries-old French Bordeaux bottles purportedly owned by Thomas Jefferson commanded steep prices ($157,000 each). A rare individual bottle of 1945 French Burgundy, sold from a local winery’s dust-covered estate cellar, commanded a record price of $558,000. With this as backdrop, let’s evaluate the wines coming up for auction.

The Headline (from Vinepair website): Christie’s to Auction Shipwrecked 17th-Century Wine.

The Background: Fourteen glass bottles of an unknown liquid were found in a shipwreck off the German coast in 2010. They were brought to the surface by a salvage company and one of them was analyzed and tested. The shape of the bottle and a test of its cork and contents confirmed that these were ancient bottles of red wine from between 1670 and 1690. The bottles were held until now and two bottles hit the auction block on June 6. Results have yet to be announced.

The Considerations

Does this sound like a bottle on which you would bid? Christie’s auction house describes its drinkability as “questionable.” Further, “this should be approached as a lot of historical and vinous importance.”

How do these two comments foster interest? Is the value in the contents or in the age of the bottles?

Does this sound like a bottle on which you would bid? Each bottle’s authenticity is certified in writing from the salvage company and has been stored in a specially designed, water-filled tank.

This speaks well of the provenance of the bottles, notwithstanding that the history of the wines from release to discovery is unknown.

Does this sound like a bottle on which you would bid?

Each bottle is expected to sell for $32,942 to $38,010.

Is this a fair value for wine that is likely undrinkable and whose producer is unknown? Many older wines sold at auction have a clear documentation of their aroma and flavor profile and whether they are drinkable. There is also a sordid history in wines sold at auction that were counterfeit, for which large sums were paid.

As discussed above, bragging rights sublimate otherwise rational concerns of high-end collectors. But what of your evaluation? Would you venture a cash investment in a highly visible bottle that ultimately may find its way back to the ocean via your kitchen sink drain?

And if you were the successful bidder, would you drink it, store it or sell it onward?

The Christie’s auction took place as I was penning this column. Hopefully as you are reading this, the results have been reported. You judge for yourself: Was the winning bid a sound price and was the winning bidder of sound mind?

Nick Antonaccio is a 40-year Pleasantville resident. For over 25 years he has conducted wine tastings and lectures. Nick is a member of the Wine Media Guild of wine writers. He also offers personalized wine tastings and wine travel services. Nick’s credo: continuous experimenting results in instinctive behavior. You can reach him at or on Twitter @sharingwine.


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