The building, on a tree-lined avenue in New York’s Upper East Side, is called Academy Mansion. Somewhere on one of the floors above us, Mr Big once unveiled a cavernous walk-in closet for Carrie Bradshaw’s shoes in the Sex and the City film.
Another day, it may well be a stage set for something else, but in late October, the wrought-iron railings either side of the front door state, ‘Welcome to The Penfolds House’. The cameras and film stars have been replaced by wine bottles, canapes and a lucky group of invitees, all here for the New York stop of one of the wine world’s most unusual world tours.
We are at the Penfolds Recorking Clinic, an event where the only admission necessary is an appointment and a bottle of Penfolds wine that is more than 15 years old. This is the 25th year of the clinic, the first was held in Perth, Western Australia, in 1991. Many of the world’s biggest wine producers used to hold these events, where clients could bring old bottles to be checked and recorked, but today Penfolds is the only one left flying the flag. Chateau Lafite Rothschild held its last one more than 10 years ago – put off, I have heard, by the risk of counterfeiting.
“Perhaps,” Penfolds’ chief winemaker Peter Gago says of that suggestion, then adds with a barely perceptible shrug: “It is also a huge logistical and financial undertaking.”
You just have to look around for proof of that. Penfolds has so far covered five cities across Australia, followed by London, and is off to Miami, Vancouver and Los Angeles on the North American leg before turning to Asia. Customised Italian-made recorking machines are kept overseas full time for these one-day events; things get a little more intense in Melbourne and Sydney, where the clinic lasts three days and have seven members of the team assessing up to 900 bottles per day.
Whatever the cost, this is one doctor’s surgery that is very definitely fun. I seem to have wandered into date night for wine lovers. I chat to Jackie and Roger, who have come up from Washington for their 20th wedding anniversary, armed with three bottles of Penfolds. “It’s for the experience as much as anything, and we thought we’d make a weekend of it,” they tell me, explaining that they lived in Australia for three years from 1997 to 2000, which is where they got to know the wines. One of their three bottles was bought at the cellar door in Magill.
On the other side of the room is a couple celebrating their 11th anniversary. They have been given a full glass each of the iconic Penfolds Grange (the rest of us are still pretty happy with a small tasting glass, part of the line-up of more than 10 recent vintages of Penfolds wines).
One by one, the waiting guests are ushered into the clinic, where Gago – very much the rock star of this particular tour – awaits. For those that want it, Richard Young from Christie’s auction house stands discreetly outside. “The effect on price of recorking depends on the age of the bottle, and the profile of the buyer,” he says. “Some people want the reassurance of a recorked bottle that has been signed off for its quality, while others want the purity and authenticity of the original cork.”
Essentially, this is a health check, and the verdict is not always good. The team makes a visual assessment first – most typically looking for a low level of wine in the bottle neck that may indicate the cork is not providing a perfect fit. If there is a problem, a taste assessment is next. If all is good but the level a little low, then the wine may be topped up and given a fresh cork bearing the date of the clinic. If it simply doesn’t pass muster, it will be given a white sticker and a plain cork – essentially saying it can no longer be given the approval from the mother ship.
“There are tears sometimes,” says Gago. “But some of them are deserved. We had one guy in Melbourne who came in with an empty bottle to be filled. Others bring in bottles filled with cold coffee or tea and hope we don’t notice. We’ve had it all.”
Jane Anson is the Louis Roederer Wine Feature Writer of the Year 2016