Buyer Beware

New Orleans Wines Turn Up at Auction Houses and Shady Retailers

The other day, I visited a local liquor store. Mind you, I didn’t write “wine retailer.” Not that I have anything against liquor stores. I just want to clarify that fine wine retailers like the Wine Cask, East Beach, Vino Divino, Gelson’s, Renegade Wines, etc. would never employ the tactics I’m about to discuss. Still, at this little Santa Barbara County liquor store, something became evident-older vintages of famous wines it had recently acquired appeared to be questionable at best. And, when the retailer refused to answer my questions regarding their origins of purchase, I became even more suspicious.

In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, questionable bottles of wine began to appear at auction houses, on e-commerce Web sites, and at shady retail stores all around the country. Bloggers were soon visiting wine-related Internet bulletin boards, like the highly popular bulletin board, sharing tales of questionable wines they’d purchased that were, subsequently, undrinkable.

Previously sold-out vintages were miraculously suddenly available at smaller stores and via the Internet. For example, at this Santa Barbara liquor store, I found a case of 1993 Beringer Private Reserve. The price of each bottle? A whopping $110. But, as I studied the bottles more closely, I was appalled by what I found. The labels were all heavily water-stained. The fill-levels of the bottles varied from one to the other, suggesting that some evaporation had already occurred due to ruined corks. There were smeared glue marks on the labels, suggesting that they’d been wiped down and readjusted after having been drenched in water. When held up to the light, several bottles contained what appeared to be floaters, or small pieces of cork, indicating that the corks had probably already started to deteriorate.

Alongside these bottles were other older vintages of Opus One, Shafer Vineyards, Duckhorn, and other coveted wines that had long ago sold out on most retail shelves. But there they were, miraculously reappeared and available in mostly case lots. All of the others, similarly, showed strong evidence of water logging. Coincidence? I hardly think so. Certainly, labels will show their age over time. If some bottles are kept in underground or musty old cellars, they will tend to show some molding and creasing. But, water-logged labels indicate something different all together. Just as cars that have been in a flood and show evidence of rust, destruction, and abuse, wines that have been submerged in a flood demonstrate a similar level of abuse.

Add to that the fact that many of the cellars that were flooded in New Orleans were then exposed to long hours, days, and weeks of no temperature control amid increasingly hot and muggy weather. The fluctuations in temperature and levels of moistness that occurred in the days following Hurricane Katrina, and, later, the collapse of several levee systems, caused great stress and injury not only to the residents and animals of New Orleans, but also to many cherished wine cellars.

While some wine collectors wrote off entire wine collections as non-salvageable, others, perhaps desperate or greedy, or a little of both, began to sell their wines on the Internet and to retailers.

What has emerged are many wines that are, more than likely, undrinkable. For retailers and Internet sellers to post these wines is unbelievable, to say the very least. That they would willfully pawn these wines off onto unsuspecting buyers is entirely inexcusable. But, still, it is happening every day.

So, the next time you buy an older, collectible wine that would have been previously hard to get ahold of, and that appears to be showing signs of water damage, hold on to your money. Though a few bottles that were damaged in the floods of New Orleans may have emerged still drinkable, the majority are ruined and buying these at auction or from a retailer would be tantamount to throwing away one’s hard-earned money.


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