Columnist, Food

Air Force Col. Jay Ducharme cradled the bottle of 1996 Penfolds Grange in his arm as if it were a baby. He had come to the Ritz-Carlton in Georgetown with his wife, mother-in-law and brother-in-law to have the bottle assessed, tasted and re-corked.

Penfolds’ chief winemaker, Peter Gago, and his winemaking team have re-corked more than 100,000 bottles of Penfolds wine over the past 20 years at similar free clinics around the world. Yet this was the first time Penfolds had brought its re-corking roadshow to Washington. Collectors were invited to bring in any Penfolds red wine 15 years old or older to have it evaluated, re-corked and, if Gago judged it sound, certified as genuine and in good condition.

The session was held primarily for collectors who intend to sell their wines at auction, to let them know how their investments are maturing. A 1951 Grange in pristine condition could be sold for the price of a luxury car, Gago said. But Ducharme was there to see how his prized bottle was faring and to experience a taste of the collector’s high life.

Ducharme, 47, stationed at the Pentagon, bought the ’96 Grange during a family vacation in Australia in 2001. It was an early investment in a collection that today tops 1,000 bottles of wine from around the world.

Once the foil capsule was removed, Gago noticed potential signs of trouble: lines of red streaking through the cork. “This may not have been the best 1996 cork,” he said. Ducharme and his relatives exchanged nervous looks, as though the value of their family fortune had just taken a tumble. They listened intently as Gago explained the importance of proper storage and how fluctuations in temperature and pressure can damage the cork and harm the wine over time.

“People blame the cork for all sorts of things, when it’s really the provenance, how the wine was stored,” he said.

Gago then pulled the cork and poured a small portion into a glass: “only 15 milliliters, about 2 percent of the wine,” he said. He didn’t measure the pour, and no one questioned him; he’d done this thousands of times and seemed to know exactly what 15 ml looked like. He immediately squirted some inert gas into the bottle to protect the wine from the air.

Holding the glass by its base, or foot, Gago gave it a vigorous swirl and took a sniff. “It’s beautiful!” he said, to the group’s delight. He then took a healthy swig and swished it around his mouth before spitting into a dump bucket.

Standing next to me, Ducharme was visibly tense. There was very little wine left in the glass as Gago handed it to him. Ducharme sniffed deeply, took a tiny sip and handed the glass to his wife, who repeated the ritual. Somehow, the entire family managed a taste. There were smiles all around.

Once Gago declared that the wine tasted like a 1996 Grange should, he affixed a label to the back of the bottle attesting that it had been re-corked in Washington in September 2011, with a code number to be entered into a winery registry for authenticity. An assistant winemaker then topped off the bottle with 15 ml of the current vintage of Grange, the 2006, before inserting a new cork marked “Penfolds Grange” and wrapping the bottle neck in a new foil capsule. Other Penfolds reds, such as the RWT Shiraz, would receive a new cork marked simply “Penfolds.” If Gago had felt the wine was not up to snuff, it would have received a plain cork and a round white sticker with no certification.

About 20 bottles were assessed that day, the oldest a 1977 Grange. A spokesman for Penfolds says they can handle up to 150 bottles per event, a limit they hit in New Orleans a few days later.

Richard Young, an appraiser for Christie’s auction house and part of the team on hand, explained that re-corked wines are more attractive to auction buyers because the winery has certified their quality several years into their life. Ducharme wasn’t interested.

“We didn’t buy this wine to sell it,” he said.

McIntyre blogs at Follow him on Twitter: @dmwine.