Penfolds Grange has always been an extreme wine: extremely oaky, extremely tannic, extremely expensive, and—after an extremely long time in the bottle—extremely delicious. The 1976 vintage of the iconic Shiraz-based Australian wine, tasted in the fall of 2005, gave as much pleasure as any I've tried. But few wines are as impenetrable as a newly released Grange; the 2001, sampled at the same time, was baffling. Would those tannins ever mellow? What miracle of alchemy could possibly transform that mouthful of splinters into liquid velvet? The same sorts of questions may have been on the minds of Penfolds management in 1957, when winemaker Max Schubert presented the 1951–1956 vintages of his experiment. They hated it and told him to stop making it. I probably would've done the same.
The best I could say for the 2001 was that it was thought-provoking. But I do hope someone will open a bottle for me in 25 years or so. If I am that lucky, there's a good chance the wine will not have its original closure. Even with recent improvements in cork production, the life expectancy of a hunk of bark with one end in a high-acid soup and the other exposed to any number of atmospheric variables is estimated at 10 to 20 years. As with so many things in nature, the material is unpredictable. Eventually it will fail, and there's no way to know when the failure will occur.
A few private companies offer recorking services, and several top Bordeaux houses have extended the courtesy to their best clients in the past (in recent years, many have discontinued or scaled back the practice). But Penfolds is the only winery that takes its recorking show on the road. Every year, it brings a mobile bottling line and a ton of wine to a series of cities in North America, Europe, and Asia for “Re-corking Clinics.” Consumers are invited to bring in any Penfolds wine more than 15 years old for evaluation. If there is reason to believe the cork has begun to lose its effectiveness (the best indication is a drop in the level of liquid in the bottle), the owner is given the option of having the bottle opened, the wine tasted by a Penfolds winemaker, and, if it's deemed sound, topped up with a small amount of the current vintage of that wine, recorked, and re-capsuled. The owner also gets to taste the wine, which may be the best reason to have the wine evaluated. There are risks, however. If the wine fails the test, the bottle will be resealed, but it will not be topped up, re-capsuled, or certified. A white dot will be placed on the bottle, indicating that it is no longer up to snuff.
Since 1991, penfolds has examined more than 80,000 bottles. The benefits to the company are obvious: It solidifies brand loyalty, the winemakers get to taste older wines that have been stored under a wide range of conditions, and they're able to remove faded and flawed wines from the marketplace, thus strengthening the overall quality of available Penfolds wines. Occasionally they also get a big surprise. Like the time a young man arrived looking like a college student on moving day. Benjamin Cohen had 86 bottles of Grange in a motley assortment of cardboard boxes from the liquor store. Red flags were raised—were they stolen? Counterfeit? As it turned out, Cohen's '81 and '82 Granges had been a gift from his father, who'd stopped drinking several years earlier. Most were in good shape, and all were definitely authentic. Penfolds won a lifelong fan by treating Cohen like the 32-year-old real-estate executive he is, but the experience paid off for Cohen, too. He got to check the progress of his wines, and he now has more time to store the best of them without fear of cork-related problems (there is a minute chance that the new cork could be infected with TCA, a compound that deadens wine and can impart wet-dog aromas). Penfolds also enters all reconditioned bottles of Grange into a master database. If a cache of reconditioned Grange were stolen, the database would make it much more difficult to sell the liquid loot. The downside, of course, is that if a wine doesn't pass, its value is greatly reduced. On the other hand, that's just one more reason to drink it, and a not-quite-right Grange is far from the worst thing to put on the table. Some owners actually seem happy to get a white dot, the decision about when to open that particular bottle having been made for them.
THE LIFE EXPECTANCY OF A CORK, WITH ONE END IN A HIGH-ACID SOUP AND THE OTHER EXPOSED TO ANY NUMBER OF ATMOSPHERIC VARIABLES, IS 10 TO 20 YEARS.
And the goal is always to make people happy. At a recent clinic, a dapper businessman arrived with two bottles encased in bubble wrap. When the plastic came off, it turned out that neither was over 15 years old. His housekeeper had packed the wrong wines. Exhibiting a level of hospitality that would make restaurateur Danny Meyer proud, chief winemaker Peter Gago had a bottle of 1980 St. Henri Claret brought out so that the gentleman could experience the recorking process anyway. The bottle was examined—the wine was delicious—a new cork inserted, a new capsule fitted, and the refreshed St. Henri was handed to the surprised attendee. Not only was he spared bad news this day, he also got a lovely parting gift. Before he went back to the office (or wherever people who have housekeepers to pack their wine for them go), he spent a few minutes in the tasting room, where the current Penfolds releases were being poured, including the massive and extremely tannic 2002 Grange.
As I observed all this, it occurred to me that a clever wine lover could track down a bottle of 15-year-old Penfolds, take it to a Re-corking Clinic, and—assuming the wine wasn't already dead—get it freshened up. Worst-case scenario: The wine fails, you have a nice snack, taste through the Penfolds current releases, and maybe even get to spend a few minutes with Peter Gago, who is without doubt a rock star of winemaking. I'm not sure it's possible to have more fun than that for around a hundred bucks in Manhattan.