Connoisseurs—very rich connoisseurs—will pay big bucks for a case, even a bottle of a rare wine. But the biggest trophies at wine auctions are the so-called large format bottles.
At last year's Auction Napa Valley, an eight magnum bottle of Colgin Cellars's Cariad, with dinner for six, went for $250,000. Owner Ann Colgin then offered to replicate the lot for four bidders to bid $250,000 each.
This March in Chicago, Hart Davis Wine Company auctions sold a single imperial of 1982 Lafite-Rothschild for nearly $42,000.
The appeal of these bottles is clearly their impressive size: a magnum holds two regular, 750 ml bottles; a jeroboam, four; rehoboam, six; an imperial or Methuselah, eight; on up to a Nebuchadnezzar, 20. An added virtue is that these bottles are said to age more slowly because of the ratio of wine to oxygen in the neck.
"People who entertain a large group frequently favor big bottles out of convenience," said Peter Meltzer, auction correspondent for Wine Spectator and author of "Keys to the Cellar: Strategies and Secrets of Wine Collecting" in a phone interview. "In the fine wine auction world, sales of large format bottles are considered a reflection of the economy.
"When times are good, people won't hesitate to uncork a big bottle, but during a recession they scale back on purchasing them. When the economy improves, they can either drink up or re- sell the bottles."
This assertion is backed up by Piero Selvaggio, owner of Valentino restaurant in Santa Monica, CA, where he cellars 75,000 bottles, with 250 of them in large formats. "When the economy was booming, I once sold a Nebuchadnezzar to a party," he told me, "but the recession has blunted that kind of extravagance. These days some customers want to bring their own big bottles, and I charge a $50 corkage fee."
For the most part large formats are made by the most illustrious Bordeaux and Burgundy estates, which usually grab the highest auction prices. A few California cult wineries also make some big bottles, in most cases donated to charity auctions.
At restaurants, large bottles create a more celebratory atmosphere at the table. "I tell my customers that a magnum is an ideal size when dining with six to eight people," says Linda Gerin, partner and wine director at Restaurant Jean-Louis in Greenwich, CT. "One bottle is not enough and as long as you're having two, uncorking a magnum has a real glamour about it."
In fact, big bottles can be the most sensible way to go for certain celebrations. "Las Vegas is the perfect city for large formats," Jennifer Eby, wine manager at Bartolotta Ristorante di Mare at Wynn Las Vegas told me. "We serve our food family style, often to large tables, and I suggest a large format as being easier and more festive."
Asked about what wines freebie-loving high rollers order, Eby said, "The hotel wants to look after those guests and they drink whatever they want, but they really don't take advantage by ordering big bottles. Our Asian guests almost never do and tend to be very modest in their consumption of wine."
The more dedicated to stocking huge cellars a restaurant is, the more large format bottles it will carry. The cellar at Charlie Trotter's in Chicago holds more than 130 large formats, including one of only five imperials ever made of Penfolds 1990 "Grange."
At Valbella in Riverside, CT, wine director Nick Zherka offers a Methuselah of Richebourg, Domaine de la Romanee Conti 1996 for $22,000. When I asked if that was negotiable, he said, "Well, maybe $21,000."
For the individual there are big risks in buying big bottles as investments. Rarely would the investor get a better price re-selling to a wine store or restaurant — and then only in a state where it is legal to re-sell wines. Auction houses post estimate prices at the going rate.
Crucial for the seller, says, Meltzer, is that "whatever you do, you must keep the wines in a professional, temperature controlled facility, so that an auction house can vouch for how it had been stored."
There's no real way, shy of opening and tasting them, to know if the wines will be sound in years to come, or if in vertical vintages, any one of them may have gone bad. Which is why so many large format bottles are just sold and re-sold and never drunk at all. In which case, you are selling an artifact, not a work of art.
It makes more sense to buy a big bottle at a retail store for a special occasion, as I did when my sons were born, in 1980 and 1985 respectively.
I put the bottles away for their 21st birthdays, when the magnums made quite splash. Rarely had I enjoyed a wine more and it was money very well spent.