Penfolds Offers Free Re-Corking for Older-Vintage Wines

Penfolds pulls out all stops (and corks) at their recorking clinics.
Those of us savvy enough to have begun collecting valuable wines early in our lives — versus me, who just wishes I had — can see significant returns on their investments. The bottle purchased at release for, say $100, can sell at auction for 10 times that amount 10 to 15 years later. One customer I met at my wine retail job told me that he cashed in some of his 1970s and 1980s investments and put his two children through elite colleges on the profits. I was envious. 

Current Senior Red Wine Maker Steve Lienert
took clinic participants through a tasting of
the latest vintage from Penfolds.
Most investors in high-end wine will go to great lengths to protect their investments. Temperature and humidity control are important, as is a stable, movement-free environment. The health of the wine and the corks are keys to their ageability. 
The world of high-end, aged wine is also high risk. In addition to the influences of such things as market fluctuations and critic scores, many wines change hands often among collectors, and there is often no guarantee that the wines have been handled properly. Additionally, corks can naturally deteriorate with age, causing leakage and the influx of oxygen, which is generally the enemy of wine.
In an effort to ease the minds of their customers, and to offset the destruction that a faulty cork can have on ageable wine, Penfolds of Australia has for the last 25 years been hosting free re-corking clinics to extend the life of some extremely valuable wines. And because the clinics are run by Penfolds winemakers they provide face-to-face time among the winemakers and collectors, which is extremely valuable to both.
Penfolds chief winemaker Peter Gago marks the fill
level on a bottle of Penfolds.
I attended a Penfolds Re-Corking Clinic recently at the Hotel Bel Air in Los Angeles to see what this was all about. Customers with cases of older Penfolds and Penfolds Grange, or just a single bottle, were treated to a demonstration hosted by long-term Penfolds employees, most of whom are winemakers. Their expertise is undisputed. 

Peter Gago, Penfolds chief winemaker and our host for the presentation, explained how customers often have a strong emotional attachment to their wines, as they represent memories, people, places, or anything that is important to them, whether it be a single bottle passed down through the family or a whole cellar bought solely for investment purposes.
Everyone is treated the same at these clinics, he says, regardless of how many bottles they bring. Some collectors with huge collections may walk away with just a few of their bottles needing to be re-corked and some walk away finding out their long-treasured bottle is not even worth saving with re-corking. 

The basic procedure of a Penfolds Re-corking clinic is as follows: 

Collectors’ wines are checked in, and must be at least 15 years old. Collectors are asked about the provenance of their wine and how they have stored it. The collectors are assigned a time for their re-corking assessment by the Penfolds experts.
Next, wine bottles are visually and physically assessed, which involves reviewing the front and back labels, the capsule and cork, and ullage, or fill level. 

An older cork is removed with a special
 two-pronged Ah-So corkpull.
Capsules and corks are removed using either a long-barreled standard table model corkscrew or, for more crumbly, moist, older corks, the German Monopole Ah-So two-prong opener, which works by sliding two prongs down either side of the cork (see picture to right) to safely remove the cork in one piece.
One ounce of wine is then poured, and the remaining wine is immediately gassed and the bottle is closed with a temporary cork.
Wines are then assessed via nose and palate. If a wine is not deemed good, it receives a white dot on the bottle and is recorked immediately and returned to the customer. This can be a tense moment for the owner, emotions sometimes run high, says Gago.
If the wine is deemed good, it is topped off with a couple ounces of Penfolds’ most recent vintage, fitted with a temporary cork, and moved on to the re-corking station. Here, another Penfolds expert removes some wine to bring the bottle back to its original fill level, adds more gas to the wine, and places a new Penfolds cork into the re-corking machine. This official Penfolds cork displays the company name — either Penfolds or Penfolds Grange — as well as an inscription indicating when it was re-corked. 
The re-corking machine — of which there are two in the United States — is a mobile device that the Penfolds team ships to clinic locations. Unlike bottling lines at wineries, where corks are inserted in a continuous cycle, it corks bottles one at a time, so more care is taken with the bottles and corks. 

Penfolds red wine maker Andrew Baldwin adds a
new foil capsule to a freshly recorked bottle.
Once the corks are inserted, the bottles are re-capsuled and then wrapped in tissue paper. In addition to making the bottles look nice, the tissue also reveals if any wine has spilled out during the process.
All information regarding the bottles coming to the clinic is meticulously noted and stored in the Cloud, providing records of provenance and authenticity. Each bottle receives a sticker on the back stating all the relevant information concerning it’s recorking.
No bottle can be re-corked more than once through the Penfolds re-corking system. Gago says that the re-corked bottles’ lives are extended and are therefore even more valuable. Which is a good thing, since some older Penfolds are among the highest-priced wines in the world. London’s Telegraph has reported that Penfolds Grange Hermitage 1951 is Australia’s most expensive wine, valued at $38,420.
Now that would have helped with my kids’ college tuition!

Until next time, 

Learn more about Penfolds re-corking clinics.

Penfolds’ latest wines were available for tasting after the re-corking clinic.