When you buy wine online, you may not see signs of spoilage or wine label fraud until it’s too late. This is why early wine bottle inspection is so important, especially for online orders. Choosing to shop with retailers and auction houses that inspect their bottles carefully before selling or storing them could save you from wine fraud, and may even improve your chances of aging your wine long-term. If, for example, an inspection of a case of wine shows that some wines in that case have experienced premox, it may be wisest not to try to age the other bottles, but to open them immediately. Inspection is one of the most powerful actions that collectors can take to combat fraud and storage issues.
Why Wine Bottle Inspection Matters
There are three reasons why having a wine inspected is essential for collectors: it helps you identify spoilage early, it prevents fraud, and it helps prove provenance. When you shop with retailers that take inspections seriously, you gain the advantages of all three benefits with no effort on your part.
Spoilage is caused by a number of different factors, from exposure to heat to improper humidity levels. By buying bottles that have been inspected for these issues in advance, you ensure that your wine won’t expire prematurely. In addition, proper inspection can help you make better decisions about whether a wine is worth buying. If the online retailer receives a full case of wine from a distributor or seller, but one or two of the bottles in the case appear to be cooked, then the retailer can assume that all of the other bottles in that case may have been compromised as well. The retailer can either choose not to sell the wine at all, or can alert would-be buyers to the problem before they invest.
While it’s important to shop with retailers that inspect bottles for signs of early spoilage, a good retailer shouldn’t stop there. Diligent retailers will go one step further with their wine bottle inspection, looking for signs of label fraud as well. A bottle of Lafite-Rothschild may appear to be in perfect condition, with healthy ullage and a cork that’s perfectly flush against the lip of the bottle. However, if the label on the bottle is slightly crooked or there are small bits of dried-on glue around the edges of the label, that bottle of wine may be counterfeit. Excellent retailers will always check the label for authenticity before selling the bottle.
One of the lesser-known advantages of wine bottle inspection is that it can help prove the provenance of an already valuable bottle, resulting in better profits for collectors. Let’s say that you invest in an aged, sought-after bottle like 1995 Sine Qua Non Bride. Because this bottle is more than 20 years old and is world-renowned, the likelihood of spoilage and fraud is much greater than that of a bottle that has only been in storage for a short period of time or that isn’t as popular on the secondary market. Having the bottle inspected for spoilage and fraud will provide you with a receipt of purchase saying that your bottle was found to be authentic and in excellent condition when you bought it. This may add to the overall value of the wine when you resell it later.
How the Experts Inspect Bottles
Different retailers will perform different levels of inspection–some may give bottles a cursory once-over or look for one or two potential problems. However, a truly professional retailer will, at a minimum, check each of the following on every bottle that arrives for storage or sale:
- Ullage: For bottles fewer than 15 years old, the ullage should sit at the base of the neck or higher; for bottles older than this, ullage should sit no lower than the upper shoulder.
- Label Authenticity: Inspectors should look for dried-on glue, crooked labels, signs of photocopying, and inconsistencies in spelling or word placement.
- Label Condition: A retailer should reject any wine that has a great deal of writing on the label, is extremely faded, is stained beyond just a few small drops, is scuffed beyond recognition, or if vital pieces of information like the producer, vintage, or vineyard are no longer legible.
- Cork Position: Some retailers only reject bottles that have significantly raised corks; some retailers, like Vinfolio, won’t allow more than 2mm of cork protrusion at the top of the bottle as this can severely impact how well the wine will age in the future and could be a sign of heat damage. Vinfolio has a similarly strict 2mm rule for cork depression, as this is an early sign of oxidation. And any signs of seepage, no matter how slight, will result in immediate bottle rejection.
- Capsule Condition: Corrosion is normal in wine bottles, but if the capsule has an actual hole in it, then trustworthy retailers should reject the bottle. In addition, a reliable retailer will test that the wax is intact and consistent in color and texture compared to other bottles from the same producer.
- Wine Color: Inspectors usually perform a color test by shining a flashlight against the bottle and checking for signs of spoilage, such as browning or inconsistent pigment.
A thorough retailer will have specific guidelines for each of the inspection points above, and, most importantly, will have different rules for different types of bottles based on region and age. A young Bordeaux will look very different compared to a 30-year-old bottle of Burgundy. Take ullage, for example; you can’t measure ullage in a Bordeaux wine in the same way that you measure fill levels in a Burgundy wine because the bottles are different in shape. To ensure consistency, retailers like Vinfolio will measure in centimeters from the base of the cork.
But how do you know whether a retailer performs all of these in-depth inspections? Before you buy wine, you can check that the retailer actually inspects bottles properly by researching their inspection guidelines and purchase guarantees online, or asking a representative whether they have these guidelines in place. Most trustworthy online retailers will be very open about their inspection practices; however, if you don’t see this information on the website, you may need to contact the retailer for more information. The level of inspection service varies depending on which retailer you choose. For instance, Vinfolio inspects every bottle that arrives in and leaves the storage warehouse, but also offers an additional cellar services option that sends an expert over to your cellar to inspect and appraise your existing bottles. This isn’t a service that most wine shops offer and it may not be necessary for every collection, but it’s beneficial for wine collectors who are thinking about selling off more than a few bottles.
By paying attention to seemingly minor details that some other retailers tend to ignore (like regional ullage standards and precise cork positioning), trustworthy merchants like Vinfolio can get a more accurate sense of whether a wine is authentic and in great condition. This, in turn, allows you to make wise, confident investments without fear that you will make a purchase you regret.
At Vinfolio, we help our clients buy, sell, store, and manage their most
treasured bottles of wine. But in our spare time, we’re just a group of
passionate and slightly obsessed oenophiles–we love sharing a great
glass of vintage Champagne, followed by a Burgundy, and then a
Bordeaux, to get things started. We’re always obsessing over the latest (and oldest) vintages, and we want to share that knowledge and passion with our readers.